In April 2013, Foreign Affairs published “Social Diplomacy: Or, How Diplomats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tweet,” written by digital communications expert and Columbia SIPA professor Alexis Wichowski. Four years later, we live in an era where the public, the media, even politicians and members of government, wake up every morning, furiously refreshing their smartphones to see whether the President of the United States tweeted, and if so, what the topic du jour will be for at least the first half of the day’s news cycle, and how much damage may have been done to a crucial alliance or to the stock market.
Wichowski wrote this article during a time when diplomats and governments shied away from digital media as a mode of communicating with foreign publics. Burson-Marsteller’s 2013 edition of “Twiplomacy,” a study that evaluates social media usage of governments, diplomats, and world leaders found that neither the U.S. Department of State, nor then-President Barack Obama were among the top 25 most-connected users on Twitter, indicating that although President Obama was among the most-followed on the platform (33,510,157 followers in Summer 2013), his tweets may not be reaching the “digital influencers” the office is hoping to reach. According to the study, a quarter of the world’s leaders unilaterally followed @BarackObama–meaning he did not follow them back. This practice is commonplace on Twitter for key “influencers;” Twitter users tend to have a higher ratio of followers to those they follow on the platform. African leaders were among the most controversial on Twitter. Countries like Haiti, which experienced an earthquake and a cholera outbreak two years prior, saw Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe use social media to bring attention to the plight of his people.
The world saw digital media’s revolutionary effect of connecting activists in Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Middle East in 2011, forever changing the way public diplomacy foreign service officers study political movements and craft diplomatic responses to them. However, the largest question mark looming over the future of digital diplomacy hangs over an Android phone in the hands of the man who lives in the White House.
There is no doubt that the 2016 presidential election and President Donald J. Trump’s tenure in office are altering our understanding of how candidates and governments will use Twitter and other digital tools to communicate, and will shape our understanding of the day-to-day governing practices of a president that is highly active on Twitter.
While President Trump (@RealDonaldTrump) has tweeted about many different topics since taking office, one of his tweets from December 2016 raised concerns among the American diplomatic community about the future stability of U.S.-China relations.
While tweeting about taking a phone call from a foreign leader in and of itself does not mean a diplomatic crisis is forthcoming, the public acknowledgement of praise from the leader of Taiwan signaled a potential departure from the U.S.’ decades-long adherence to the One China Policy. This caused a shockwave to reverberate through the media, prompting several explainers like this one from The Washington Post, and this one from The Atlantic. Whether this call was meant to change the diplomatic landscape the U.S., China, and Taiwan face, or the then-president elect did not consider the ramifications of his tweet, this is an example of Mr. Trump quickly learning the currency valuation of his tweets when conducting diplomacy.
More recently, President Trump used the platform to comment on tensions with North Korea, and put the onus of solving the conflict squarely on China’s shoulders. Below are tweets that were sent over several days that reflect a departure from the collaborative nature of the Six Party Talks-approach to diplomatically solving this issue.
President Trump is not the first world leader to stir controversy on the digital communications platform. In August 2014, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan’s Twitter account appeared to go on a random rant threatening war with neighboring Armenia.
However, it was later revealed that the tweets were excerpts from a longer speech that was later posted to the president’s website. These tweets were also from the English language account for President Aliyev, which indicates the audience for these tweets was outside of Azerbaijan and for a primarily English-speaking audience.
Wichowski’s assertion that diplomats stop dismissing the platform’s importance has certainly held up, even while the practices surrounding how diplomats use social media have changed. In Burson-Marsteller’s 2016 edition of Twiplomacy, the authors discuss the digital divide between those governments like the U.S., U.K., Mexico, and Nordic states, that have embraced digital media, and the few governments that still view digital communications as an afterthought. Today, social media is used by embassies, ambassadors, and even individual public diplomacy programs to communicate with foreign publics about a variety of issues. Ambassadors often use Twitter to “humanize” themselves to the public. For example, when Samantha Power was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, she tweeted often about her love of the Boston Red Sox. Sometimes, she intertwined sports and diplomacy, like in the tweet below with a photo of Power and Henry Kissinger at Yankee Stadium.
Given that the landscape has changed so much Twitter since Wichowski’s article was published, here are a few recommendations for diplomacy practitioners to use when using Twitter to communicate:
Don’t try to make or change policy only through tweets: This may seem like an obvious suggestion, however, given that President Trump’s tweets were recently referenced by the North Korean regime as reason for a ratcheting up in hostilities, I’ve included it here. The nature of the platform is such that it purposefully limits the actual space for a Twitter user to express his or her point with true detail and nuance. Therefore, tweets should be used to highlight events or articles rather than be the sole platform to announce a shift in complex policy details.
Use well-made infographics and video: When working within the limited confines of 140 characters, it’s important to use every bit of space the platform gives to communicate with detail. This means using infographics and video to further communicate statistics and facts. For example the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Programs Twitter account does an excellent job of combining media with tweets. Below is an example that promotes a program by highlighting due dates for the application by using links and an infographic:
Remember that Twitter doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Social media managers are often overlooked, or considered an afterthought in the communications process. Leaving them out of the overall strategy formulation is where mistakes are most likely to occur. By ensuring that the entire communications team views Twitter and other platforms as important tools in the communications toolkit, in addition to press releases, television spots and other press hits, is critical to an effective communications strategy. However, the converse is also true, especially if an ambassador or a head of state manages their own account. We saw a scenario regarding this suggestion break down when President Aliyev’s account tweeted out inflammatory tweets without linking to a longer statement or speech to contextualize them. Having a plan for if a tweet goes viral, for good or for bad reasons, is integral to an effective communications strategy. Keeping people in the loop regarding what tweets will be sent is critical to ensuring any response is coordinated and deliberate.
In the four years since Wichowski’s article was published, diplomats have undoubtedly learned to embrace the tweet, and even the SnapChat story, and the Instagram post. Practitioners no longer view Twitter as some “bizarre or childish revolution” as Wichowski said, and its impact on diplomatic relations and communications will only become more prevalent, especially due to “breaking news” nature of President Trump’s use of the platform. Given all of this, it is critical that diplomats and heads of state alike treat social media as a component of their communications strategy and not as a stove-piped communications apparatus.