Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Diplomats and social media: new competences needed for ‘bird watching’

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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions.

By Dr. Huub Ruël.

Today’s world is very much a social media world. Even ‘traditional’ media have turned into social media-based news sources, and sharing almost everything all the time has become the standard.

There is hardly any event or happening that is not caught by a camera and shared via social media. Social media are the channel for creating, sharing and spinning opinions, videos, messages, documents, fake news and so on, although not always free.

All types of industries, professions, organisations and environments are affected by it, and diplomacy is no exception.

The current US president may have helped lift the status of social media to new levels, both higher and lower. He uses Twitter as his channel of first resort to share his opinions with the world before sharing it with his staff and advisors. This is the ultimate classic case of how social media usage impacts the work of diplomats. Each tweet by the US president requires the US diplomatic corps around the world to interpret the message and stand behind it. The tweeting-behavior of the US president requires diplomats to be on alert 24/7 and beyond.

Social media usage has many good aspects with regard to the work of diplomats. It offers opportunities to increase the transparency of the work done by embassies, it increases the speed of distributing information, and it enables diplomats to contact a wider audience and a more diverse group of actors.

The threshold for the public to contact embassies, ambassadors and other diplomats has also lowered due to the increased visibility and transparency facilitated by social media. And in case of emerging crises, social media allows the public and specific stakeholders to be informed instantly. Diplomats have started to use social media for their own profiling and visibility. The question remains, however, is the most social media savvy diplomat also the best diplomat?

But as the case of the US president implies, the phenomenon of social media has also become a source of stress for diplomats. Parliaments and the public are constantly on top of the global issues and happenings. An unending global reporting of events requires instant responses from diplomats and foreign ministries, which are constantly on the alert. And in today’s world of fake news, information and social media messages need to be verified all the time, increasing the work pressure.

Another issue arising is that social media usage is a means to trigger policy change, something that worries authorities in several places around the world. Feeding the audiences with and responding to content via social media influence public opinions, journalism and policy makers. And again, fake news is a risk here as well; it may even be intentionally spread by hostile actors to serve their own harmful ends. It means that social media is not neutral, it is always used intentionally.

All this impacts the role, work and competences required of diplomats. Social media are here to stay and will keep on advancing. The benefits seem to have outweighed the ‘costs’. Regulations by governments may be starting to contain the trouble of fake news and trolls, but it is difficult to believe that this will ever be completely resolved.

Fake news and trolls existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.
For individual diplomats, a relevant question to answer is, to what extent will my role and duty be served by social media visibility? The roles and types of diplomats are likely to become more diverse, and some types will find it crucial to be visible and active on social media while others will prefer non-visibility. Therefore, a clearer distinction will be made between diplomats serving the interaction with the public and society and those serving the silent and hidden diplomacy and the interaction with parties and actors behind the scenes.

But visible or not, the ability to absorb, analyze and respond to information is a key competence for diplomats in general. The ability to understand the mechanisms of how the ‘viral’ world works, how ‘stories’ and ‘events’ are created and may unfold is essential for diplomats in order to be able to respond and act ‘ahead of the social media news curve’. As social media are always used intentionally and new types of social media will keep on emerging, diplomats need to have that sense of how to spot new social media developments.

Since social media have very much been and most likely will stay a channel for the public (consisting of multiple subgroups though), diplomats will need to have a good sense of what’s going on in the host country society in order to express views, spark debates and share events. Staying inside the ‘cocoon’ among fellow diplomats and government representatives will not help them be effective in a social media-sensitive society.

Finally, due to the social media-facilitated high speed news and information flows around the world, individual diplomats need to have an excellent sense of finding their own space to act (proactively) and react via social media. The time to jump on a horse to deliver a government-approved message to foreign governments and heads of state is unfortunately far too short in a world in which presidents of global powers are using a ‘bird’ to communicate with citizens at home and abroad. And that ‘bird’ speed will keep on increasing.


About the author: Professor of International Hospitality Business and Diplomacy & Global Talent Management Innovation
Hotelschool The Hague – Hospitality Research Centre

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