Digital diplomacy spreads through Washington

Canada's embassy in Washington played host to a "Digital Democracy Open House" recently where dipolmats from a dozen embassies shared ideas on using social media to reach their foreign policy goals.

Canadian Embassy hosts Digital Democracy Open House

Katherine Baird welcomes attendees of the Digital Diplomacy Open House event at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, November 21, 2013. (Keegan Bursaw/Canadian embassy)

The Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., opened its doors last week to the city’s digital diplomats for an event where they could brag about their use of social media and pick up some tips.

A dozen embassies and international organizations, including the World Bank and European Union delegation, participated in the “Digital Diplomacy Open House” that was held in partnership with the Digital Diplomacy Coalition. The groups had tables set up with materials and laptops and they gave presentations to showcase how they are using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to further their foreign policy objectives.

Digital diplomacy has been evolving quickly over the last three to four years and some countries, such as the United States and Britain, are way ahead of others. But in true diplomatic fashion, embassies in Washington at least, are trying to bridge the gaps by helping each other learn about and leverage the power of social media.

“If we are to be successful in this world of 21st century statecraft we can’t stop learning and adapting,” Katherine Baird, who is in charge of congressional, public and intergovernmental relations at the Canadian Embassy, told the packed room of attendees in her welcoming remarks.

For foreign ministries of governments around the globe, and their embassies, that adaptation means they now plan how to communicate with the public in 140 characters or less. Twitter has become such an important player that ‘Twiplomacy’ is common parlance in international affairs circles.

It also means getting ambassadors and foreign ministers themselves to jump on the Twitter train, it means creating videos for YouTube, it means maintaining accounts on Facebook, Flickr and Tumblr – it means a lot more work for public affairs and communications staff. 

Embassies get creative

Some embassies now employ staff who focus solely on digital communications. That’s Jed Shein’s job – digital director – at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He’s also one of the co-founders of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, a group that was founded last year by a handful of diplomats from various embassies, meant to serve as a forum for Washington’s diplomatic community.

“You see varying levels of use and activity, but people realize they can’t not be on it,” Shein said about using social media. “They’ve got to be there. It’s missed opportunity if they’re not.”

Andreas Sandre, left, is in charge of digital diplomacy at the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C. (Keegan Bursaw/Canadian embassy)

Shein said his embassy tends to create social media content that is a little more edgy and political than some of Israel’s other embassies. At times their efforts have generated news coverage in traditional media which is an added bonus. Case in point: the fake LinkedIn page the Washington embassy created for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September.

The bogus page described Rouhani as a “PR professional” and “nuclear proliferation advocate” and listed “illusion” as one of his skills. The profile was posted to coincide with Rouhani’s appearance at the United Nations General Assembly. It created enough buzz on social media that news outlets picked up the story.

Social media is changing the way public diplomacy is conducted and it's giving embassies a bit more control over their messaging. It’s also extended their reach far beyond local or national media markets.

“No longer do you have to rely on the press to pick up the quote that you want. You can create the messages that you want by putting out the content that you want,” said Shein.

Ralph Posner, senior vice-president at Fleishman Hillard in Washington, whose firm does work for the Turkish Embassy, said embassies have to be cautious with their digital diplomacy.

“It’s not without risk that’s for sure,” he said. “Embassies have to be careful and not get too far out in front of their ministries of foreign affairs back home.”

Several diplomats at the open house said they are trying to use social media effectively so their efforts aren't wasted and don't backfire. It's not just being on Twitter that matters, for example, it's how it is used, they said. Language, and which one to use, also must be taken into consideration since the messages put out by embassies in America are read by both Americans and the expatriate communities. 

Canada connects on social media

The Canadian Embassy in D.C. has been playing the digital diplomacy game for a few years now. The “Connect2Canada” website was created in 2005 and in 2008 the embassy started tweeting under that name and created a Connect2Canada Facebook page to share news about Canada and bilateral relations.

Ambassador Gary Doer doesn’t have his own Twitter account, but the communications team often writes on Twitter about his activities in real time using his name as a hashtag. The team also uses Flickr, YouTube and LinkedIn.

“Digital diplomacy is more than traditional diplomacy adapted to a new medium. Social media allows the embassy to engage, collaborate and share in real time,” the embassy’s deputy spokeswoman Alexandra Vachon White said. “The reach of accurate information can be expanded instantly.”

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is active on Twitter and so is his department, along with embassies and consulates around the world that use various social media tools.

For Andreas Sandre, the Italian Embassy’s press officer in charge of digital diplomacy in Washington, it’s all about drawing people together.

"If you’ve ever been to an Italian piazza, that’s sort of the idea,” he said while manning his booth at the open house. “That Italian piazza that you can find in Venice, Florence, other small towns, you now find online through social media.”