TRUE talks to Jed Shein from the Israeli embassy and Floris Winters from the Netherlands embassy about how countries decided to take a cue from companies to use social as a means to connect with friends and foes in digital neutrality. They, along with colleagues from the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere have formed the Digital Diplomacy Coalition to support diplomatic efforts online.
TRUE: What is digital diplomacy?
Winters: This is an area in which new technologies and new communication tools are changing the way diplomacy is done. A definition is not fully formed because the practices are continuously moving, developing and evolving, just like the technology. Digital diplomacy for us involves assessing the field and the tools and technologies that can be used. This allows us to leverage these tools for our mission and our diplomatic goals.
Shein: At its basis it is traditional diplomacy just through a new medium. Anywhere that embassies and diplomats do a briefing or write an op-ed or host a party or event. You’re seeking to engage with a targeted community, a specific community. Digital diplomacy simply is bringing all that online. It is about recognizing where people are spending time today, where they are the most active and how they receive their information. Previously it was the newspapers for us and it still is, but with the boom in social over the past several years it must also be online in social media.
Shein: I don’t think it really changes anything. It is a supplement, a complement to the diplomacy that has been going on. We still have diplomats having meetings with governments privately. We still do briefings for individual audiences, etc. Regular diplomacy continues. But this is a way to reach and engage a broader audience. With digital diplomacy we’re going to be able to engage with people interested in our respective countries but when we discuss water management or food production or foreign policy, we may be able to engage with people who could be interested in our respective countries based on these topics.
If we’re not there, there’s potentially a vacuum in the discussion and somebody else is going to fill it. If it’s someone who shares the same priorities as us, of course that’s great. But that won’t always be the case. There are multiple opinions out there, and anytime we get the opportunity to share our priorities, our perspective and our initiatives with the public, we look to go with that opportunity.
Winters: Diplomats also recognize the opportunity channels like Twitter provide to come into contact with experts or other relevant persons to support their public diplomacy goals. Digital diplomacy allows diplomats to listen, have a voice in the discussion, contribute ideas online and offline.
Shein: It gives a greater opportunity for more two-way dialogue between the public and the foreign ministry. The barriers of communications are breaking down because of social media. It used to be to have a conversation with an ambassador or senior embassy personnel it was a question of whom you knew. Now if the ambassador or a foreign minister is on Twitter or Facebook, you technically have the opportunity to engage with them directly and ask them questions and engage in discussion. You’re seeing a number of efforts out there to reach out to people who otherwise would never have the chance.
TRUE: When did embassies and foreign ministries begin to embrace social media and move beyond just having a website?
Shein: There was no particular year or moment. As people started to spend less time with television and newspapers and more online and then with social, that’s where we needed to be. If you’re in China and everyone is on Weibo, then you have to be there too, if you want to reach the people. Our coalition began in 2011 and one reason we were successful was because there was already a strong interest and people were already active online.
Winters: It has been a natural progression. It wasn’t like everyone saw the influence of the Arab Spring and decided they had to be online. The U.S. State Department made a big push under Hillary Clinton. The term digital diplomacy was coined then. Since 2002 embassies and foreign ministries started to embrace social media more and reached out to technology companies to discover new tools that they could utilize.
TRUE: Do your embassies study how brands interact online for clues about things you should do?
Winters: Companies most times have the advantage of a large marketing budget. So they can create very interesting campaigns. I think for government and nonprofit organizations it’s very interesting to keep an eye on companies for creative ideas, global trends, what kind of content seems most relevant and how people are adopting mobile apps. The corporate sector has been relying on more videos and so have we. We’ve used Vine, for instance, on certain occasions. We create little six-second Vines and that gives a little bit of an extra element to story telling.
Shein: We (Israel) see ourselves as a brand that is competing with everything out there for attention as we share our perspectives. So we like to stay on top of trends and technologies. We watch our competition. The British Embassy here in Washington was one of the first embassies to create a BuzzFeed page. We have a tight knit community here in Washington and not long after many of the other embassies created BuzzFeed pages as well.
As companies get more creative, it forces us all to be more creative and unique if we are still going to be able to command attention for our perspective. But we only wish we had the budgets that Fortune 500 companies do.
TRUE: How has digital diplomacy been innovating?
Winters: I can give you an example that recently took place in London. The Dutch and U.K. governments, NGOs and tech developers held a diplohack to develop solutions to combat sexual violence in conflict zones.
TRUE: Like crowdsourcing a solution?
Winters: Yes, working together and contributing to an innovative solution. The DiploHack also attracted the involvement of some prominent people such as Angelina Jolie.
Photo credit: Hillary Clinton (Original image by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters)