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From Social Media Week: Bringing public diplomacy into the social arena

Kara Hadge is head of digital media at the British Council in the U.S. Follow her at @karahadge, and find the British Council at @BCUnitedStates.

The lure of reaching new audiences around the world is a compelling reason for any organization to start using social media. It’s especially compelling when that lure is already your mission. At an event on Public Diplomacy in the Age of Social Media held at the New America Foundation during Social Media Week in Washington DC, panelists from the U.S. Department of State explained how they are using social media to broaden the scope of U.S. public diplomacy, but their advice can apply just as easily to many other professions.

That said, social media is easier to apply to some realms of diplomacy than others. When we talk about diplomacy, that generally refers to governments talking to governments, and public diplomacy is when governments engage in talking to people. Then there’s cultural relations, which I practice at the British Council, the U.K.’s quasi-governmental international organization where I lead our digital engagement in the U.S. Cultural relations is people talking to people so at the British Council we create opportunities to build trust between people in the U.K. and other countries. In many ways, it’s perfectly suited to the weak ties and wide reach of social media.

But trying to reach the entire world, whether on behalf of a government or its people, requires a well-developed strategy. Here are a few guidelines the panel discussed that can be applied to many internationally-aimed social media strategies.

Use the right platforms. To reach international audiences, you need to be “on the platforms people want to use, having conversations in the languages in which they’re comfortable,” said panelist Ed Dunn. This means operating channels in multiple foreign languages, and it also means using the platforms that are most popular in other countries, like Orkut instead of Facebook.

Listen to your audience. Suzanne Hall emphasized that much of what the State Department does is listen. This is why countries send diplomats abroad. Hall emphasized that the people who work locally in other countries know the audience much better than those in Washington so a “cookie-cutter approach” will not work.

Measure, measure, measure. When you’re funded by taxpayers, you need metrics to support a business case for social media engagement. Ed Dunn uses ThinkUp, Tweet Reach, HootSuite, and My Tweet Map. It’s worth thinking about what the most meaningful measure of your engagement is: If you’re looking to broadcast information, the number of followers you have matters, but if you’re aiming for dialogue, you’d better pay attention to that Klout score.

Build trust. Nicholas Namba observed that his mission is to “build America’s reputation overseas,” and by listening to what aspects of American culture interest local audiences, local offices can tailor the cultural programming they provide. But building trust goes beyond just listening to opinions, and in a similar panel discussion the British Council hosted in the fall, a variety of speakers concluded that trust-building often comes from a deep understanding of the audience’s needs offline.

Aim to move online engagement offline. In public diplomacy and cultural relations, it’s easy to take engagement offline in a foreign country when you have staff there, as the panelists all noted. But one of the questions from the audience was whether online communities would ever have a say in decisions taken by the State Department. While the panelists were optimistic in their replies, they were also, not surprisingly, noncommittal about when and how that could happen.

And for good reason. There are realistic obstacles to how far online engagement can impact offline decision-making. You wouldn’t expect a significant role for online communities in government-to-government diplomacy, but in cultural relations, creating opportunities for engagement offline is the end goal of our involvement in online communities. “Social media is one venue,” said Namba. “You’ve got to link to traditional media and offline [opportunities] to make it useful.”