The Embassy of Norway recently posted pictures on Facebook of Ambassador Wegger Strommen and his wife Cecilie cross-country skiing along Embassy Row after February’s heavy Washington snowstorms.
The Facebook post generated upbeat press coverage in another “post” — the Washington Post’s “Reliable Source” gossip column, one of the most valuable pieces of media real estate in town.
In February, the Canadian Embassy posted video on Facebook of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wearing a Canadian hockey jersey at his daily briefing as payment for a bet he’d lost when Canada beat the Americans to win Olympic hockey gold.
That post resulted in lots of views and some good-natured, online ribbing of the White House press secretary.
Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s permanent mission to NATO, uses his Twitter feed to offer up musings in both Russian and English. They are often anything but diplomatic. The controversial envoy visited the National Army Museum in London last month and tweeted somewhat sarcastically about what he saw.
“Judging by the exhibits, the British have always been at war all alone … there’s no mention of the Americans or Russians,” he wrote. “If Russians did fight somewhere, it was against freedom-loving Georgia, and Brits sent their troops there to calm down everyone!”
Meanwhile, the White House is also getting into the social media act — albeit a bit less bluntly. In March, Press Secretary Gibbs used Twitter to announce that President Obama would delay a trip to Asia to help Congress pass his signature domestic agenda item, health care reform.
Embassies and foreign ministries, as well as the U.S. State Department and even the White House, are gradually entering the realm of social media. Government and diplomatic use of powerful communications tools such as Facebook and Twitter are continuously evolving and no two diplomatic entities seem to use them in the same way.
A survey of many foreign embassies in Washington revealed no social media activity at all. Old-fashioned phone calls, e-mail, faxes and face-to-face meetings are still the norm for most diplomats. A good number of embassies do send out regular newsletters by e-mail to keep subscribers abreast of the latest news and cultural events for that country — among them Afghanistan, Britain, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Switzerland and Venezuela.
But a few diplomats are venturing into the realm of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and those who do are reporting initial satisfaction with a medium that can be used as an effective — and zero-cost — communications and public diplomacy tool.
“I was using Facebook for myself and I thought it would be very useful for the embassy,” said Terje Raadik, public and cultural affairs officer for the Embassy of Estonia in Washington. “It’s very good to have a Facebook fan page because everybody — especially the younger generation — is on Facebook. If you’re not there, you’re not visible.”
Estonia’s Washington embassy launched its Facebook “fan page” in early February. In recent weeks, the embassy used Facebook to promote a contest for an all-expenses paid trip for two to the Baltic nation, as well as to drum up interest in a local appearance by an Estonian musician and to post links to news articles and commentary about Estonia.
A highly connected, tech-savvy nation, Estonia has 40 embassies around the world and 10 are currently using Facebook, with an undetermined amount of others using Twitter as well, according to Raadik.
“It’s not centralized,” she said, explaining that each embassy has latitude to use social media as it wishes.
However, Raadik noted that she doesn’t find Twitter, with its 140-character word limit, nearly as useful as Facebook.
“We used Twitter for half a year [at the Washington embassy], but you have to keep posting all the time,” she said, adding that with just 11 employees at the embassy, such constant posting was difficult to do. “We don’t have the manpower to feed it all the time. I don’t think it’s practical either. There is not so much news all the time that we could post.”
At the Norwegian Embassy, staff use both Twitter and Facebook but in different ways.
“We try and focus on different audiences,” said Nicholas Stivang, secretary and cultural attaché at the embassy.
For example, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre maintains a regular Twitter feed with policy pronouncements and links to relevant news articles. The embassy also has a Twitter account on which it posts cultural links, such as reviews of books by Norwegian authors or appearances by Norwegian rock bands in the United States. Finally, the embassy maintains an active Facebook page with events and happenings related to Norway in the Washington region. All the sites were launched Feb. 1.
“We wanted to kind of use it as a speakerphone, or a kind of a place where we would announce what is going on,” Stivang said of social media avenues.
Facebook fan pages are popping up for members of Congress, as well. The interactivity aspect — fans can comment on posts to the page — gives users a sense of connection with the member. Likewise, fan pages are allowing users to directly connect with embassies.
“The goal is to make it easier for people to enter into a dialogue with the embassy,” said Arild Strommen of the Norwegian Embassy’s public information office.
But there is one potentially major downside to those concerned about managing public image: Not all of those “fan” comments may be polite. Anyone can become a fan and post virtually anything they want on the comments section of a Facebook page, unless comments are disabled by the page administrator.
Officials with embassies around Washington report little to no fan negativity on their Facebook pages so far. But that’s almost certainly because the pages generally tend to focus on lighter cultural fare, as opposed to controversial political issues.
“So far we have not had any negative comments,” Strommen said. “Obviously a situation might arise. We’re not going to remove it [a comment] because it may be negative, but if it’s inflammatory, we might remove that and try to communicate with that person and give an explanation as to why we removed it.”
As with Estonia, the Norwegian government is using social media for only some of its embassies and foreign missions. Nine of 104 missions around the world are engaged, said officials at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington. Indeed, for many diplomats, social media is still in the experimental stages.
“We’re really going to see how it evolves after a while,” Stivang said. “It’s definitely worthwhile. They’re using it to see if they can harness some energy for new channels of outreach.”
Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, holds the distinction of being the first ambassador stationed in Washington to establish a personal Twitter account. By most accounts, the experiment — launched in November 2009 — has been a success. He had more than 2,700 followers as of mid-March.
The ambassador’s tweets run the gamut from real-time updates to commentary on news to announcements. “Arriving at the State Department for the swearing-in ceremony of Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere,” Sarukhan tweeted in March.
A day earlier, he made a statement about Americans killed in apparent drug gang violence in Mexico. “The Mexican Embassy in the US conveys its condolences to our friends and colleagues at the State Department and US Consulate in Cd. Juarez,” the ambassador wrote.
Sarukhan tweets in both Spanish and English depending on the subject.
Of course, foreign embassies aren’t the only ones taking advantage of American social media sites. As mentioned earlier, the White House and the Obama administration in general have fully embraced the technology as a way to craft messages and in some cases bypass traditional media — a technique Obama successfully employed during his election campaign to drum up grassroots support. Since coming to office, the president has pushed various agencies to recognize the benefits of technology to reach out to Americans and to provide transparency and accountability in government (many of these initiatives can be found on the White House Web site at www.whitehouse.gov/issues/Technology).
The State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, launched in late 2003, is a permanent part of the Bureau of Information Resource Management. The office has three broad mandates: to give State Department diplomats more say in decisions affecting information technology policy, improve communication both inside and outside the agency, and to enhance access to information generally.
According to the State Department Web site, eDiplomacy “aims to strengthen American foreign policy by enabling American diplomats and other members of the U.S. government foreign affairs community to access and contribute foreign affairs knowledge anywhere, anytime.”
The State Department’s fan page on Facebook is a runaway hit. As of late March, more than 34,000 people had signed on to be fans. The page is packed with pronouncements from America’s diplomatic arm, including myriad “grip and grin” photos of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with foreign dignitaries.
The content tends toward links to DipNote, the official State Department blog (http://blogs.state.gov) where visitors can read postings or watch videos on Clinton’s meetings and trips, or on specific issues such women’s rights or the impact of climate change on Senegal, for instance. But the site is definitely interactive, with some posts generating dozens of comments and debate from fans.
Last month, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, a move widely seen as a slap in the face to the Obama administration. Biden condemned the plan and Clinton hit the roof, demanding in a phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu that the project be canceled.
Reacting to the dust-up, a fan of the State Department chimed in on its Facebook page. “I condemn the actions and comments of the Obama Administration in relation to Israel’s decision to build homes in Jerusalem,” wrote the fan, Jason McCart of Andalusia, Ala. “There is no place in America for that kind of obvious anti-Semitic behavior.”
There will be even more room for public feedback with the recent debut of a new State Department project called Opinion Space, an interactive online tool (launched in partnership with the University of Berkeley Center for New Media) that solicits perspectives on U.S. foreign policy from around the world and incorporates users’ input into a visual display that identifies insightful ideas (www.state.gov/opinionspace). The launch for the program was announced, appropriately enough, on the DipNote blog.
Clinton has even mentioned the importance of social media in diplomacy specifically during a speech at New York University’s graduation ceremony last May when she spoke of “21st-century statecraft.”
“We need to build new partnerships from the bottom up and use every tool at our disposal. That is the heart of smart power,” Clinton said. “This changing landscape requires us to expand our concept of diplomacy.”
She added: “The biggest challenges we face today will be solved by the 60 percent of the world’s population under the age of 30…. Young people like you are using their talents and ingenuity to fashion their own forms of service and diplomacy.”
As an example, she cited the work of two graduates from Columbia University who used Facebook to start the group “One Million Voices Against FARC,” referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, “to organize 14 million people into the largest antiterrorism demonstrations in the world,” Clinton said. “In a few short weeks, their actions did as much damage to the terrorist networks as years of military action.”
(State Department officials though did not return old-fashioned phone calls from The Diplomat seeking comment on the agency’s social media strategies.)
It’s clear that many governments are waking up to the potential power of social media — as evidenced by opposition reformers in Iran using Twitter to spread word of their protests last year, or even survivors of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile using tweets and text messages to relay information in the midst of disaster.
Yet to proclaim the success of social networking at least in these early phases at many embassies is not to say that the technological tools — and their instantaneous mode of communicating without any scrutiny — are infallible.
Steve Clemons, a popular blogger at the Washington Note and other Web sites, recently wrote about what he viewed as a fraud that had been perpetrated on the media via Twitter during the protests of Iran’s elections last June.
The issue stemmed from tweets about which embassies were or were not taking in injured protestors. In the end, Clemons wrote that he and others had been duped into reporting erroneously that the British Embassy in Tehran had been helping wounded protestors. The tweets weren’t being generated by the embassy but made their way into mainstream reporting anyway.
“The British Foreign Ministry spoke directly to the British ambassador in Tehran who said that the reports of the British Embassy taking in injured were incorrect. I would say fraudulent,” Clemons wrote.
“Iranian authorities supporting [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei have been trying to blame the domestic turmoil on foreign governments. And one could imagine that even ‘taking in’ those injured in a domestic crisis would be considered by the Iranian government as meddling.
“On one hand, I was impressed by the Brits taking in the injured and thought it was a brave thing to do,” Clemons continued. “Then, on the other, more privately — I thought to myself that such an action could be twisted by the Iranian government and have serious diplomatic consequences.
“All I know for certain is that what was reported on Twitter is in part false,” Clemons concluded. “This intriguing story could be a case of ‘twitter fraud.’”
So far though, most embassies are using social networking sites for less political and more benign purposes — promoting events or tourism, or simply as a tool to help Americans get to know their nations.
For instance, America’s friendly neighbor to the north, Canada, has been getting into the social media game for a while. Hani Nasser, a deputy spokesman at the embassy in Washington, explained how the Canadian government created “Connect2Canada” in 2005, an online network of Canadian expats in the United States or “just friends of Canada.”
The site has around 50,000 members, with pages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other social media tools. It’s serves as a sort of clearinghouse for all of the Canadian government’s social networking efforts. The site also generates 5,500 page views per day, making it by far the most popular online vehicle for gleaning news about Canada.
Nasser said sites such as Facebook and Twitter are great for getting a message out, but also for taking a message in.
“That’s how we use social media,” he said, “to complement our traditional media strategy.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.