‘Twitter diplomacy’: How should diplomats approach social media?

A workshop on Twitter diplomacy took place recently at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, hosted by the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations Office in Geneva and Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group.

Ambassadors and permanent representatives, interested diplomatwitter-diplomacy-1ts, international civil servants and scholars working in communications, as well as the NGO community, came together to debate whether diplomats and civil servants should be active on Twitter and other forms of social media. The workshop also discussed how to navigate the risks and rewards of social media and provided  tips on best practices.

Attendees discussed how diplomats can use social media to: set an agenda, exert influence and open up formerly private processes to public scrutiny for transparency and accountability. Social media can enable diplomats to explain their position and spread their message as a form of outreach activity. Governments and diplomats can also build brand awareness (personally or institutionally), engage with and learn from others.

Nevertheless, the panel identified some risks and disadvantages to the use of social media, including trolling, death threats, indiscretions or leaks of confidential information, and the difficulties of using social media during multilateral negotiations.

Jovan Kurbalija, Director of the DiploFoundation, moderated the lively discussion and asked participants to think about the end-goals and measures of Return on Investment. Janis Karklins, the Permanent Representative of Latvia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, called for evidence as to the pros and cons of digital diplomacy, to justify the time diplomats are spending on social media.

According to Dr Corneliu Bjola, Associate Professor in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford, digital diplomacy has the potential to change the DNA of diplomacy. He identified the different audiences as media, foreign publics, diaspora communities, nationals, and diplomatic communities.

Julian Braithwaite, Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United Nations in Geneva, highlighted the strong growth of social media, which in his view “is the future of media and communications.” Diplomats have historically approached the media with great caution, viewing it as an area where the risks usually far outweigh the benefits. The UK Government, however, changed its social media policy a few years ago to encourage the use of social media. He highlighted a fundamental tension in this respect: civil servants are not commentators and have to be ‘on-message’, but social media is about two-way interaction and building a conversation.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of the ITU Strategic Planning and Membership Department, presented the perspective of an international organization, and gave an overview of how ITU’s multilateral negotiations and governance structures have changed through the use of social media and remote participation technologies. ITU has been progressively opening up its procedures and governance structure, and becoming more responsive to and engaged with its stakeholders through social media channels.

Andrew Smith of the human rights watch organization Article 19, spoke on the use of Twitter for following human rights. Social media has helped make the activities of the Human Rights Council more transparent, and Twitter has promoted the voice of civil society, helped brand awareness, and provided a counter-narrative to the way in which governments report human rights matters.

Participants concluded that Twitter is here to stay and presented ten tips to increase RoI.

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