The Digital Diplomat: Connected and on Twitter

Matthias Lüfkens on the new tools of “21st Century Statecraft”.

By: /
17 October, 2012
By: Matthias Lüfkens
Digital Practice Leader with global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller

Call it Twiplomacy, Twitter diplomacy, Facebook diplomacy, YouTube diplomacy, weiplomacy, e-diplomacy, or simply digital diplomacy, the use of social networks has become an integral part of government communication. The new tools of the “21st Century Statecraft” – a term coined by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are rapidly replacing fax and telex, and are becoming as important for government leaders, ministers, and diplomats as the telephone, email, and diplomatic cables. In the near future, no one will be able to become a leader without digital followers, and no diplomat will be well-positioned to represent his or her country if he or she does not personally engage on social networks. And it is not the size of the followership that matters, but the quality of the conversations.

The year 2012 has seen a marked increase in the use of social media ­– especially Twitter and Facebook – by heads of state and government, ministers, and diplomats. The entire governments of Chile and Mexico, and their ministers, are on Twitter. The most recent world leaders to join the social network are EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso (@BarrosoEU) and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (@David_Cameron), who signed up on Oct. 6, 2012, immediately prior to the U.K. Conservative Party Conference. Neither of them is tweeting personally. David Cameron once said in a radio interview, “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.”

Twitter is probably one of the easiest social-media tools to use in government communication. It allows the broadcast of short, 140-character messages to a large audience, well beyond any country’s borders. Despite receiving massive abuse in the first hours of his foray into the Twitterverse, David Cameron’s team kept his 120,000 followers abreast of his activity during the party conference. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez used Twitter to rally his 3.6 million followers and secure re-election on Oct. 7, 2012. Twitter helped Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves debunk a negative news story about his country in the New York Times, and Rwandan Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi uses it to converse directly with his followers every Friday.

A senior leader of an international organization once argued that he couldn’t possibly express his thoughts in only 140 characters. On the contrary, the 140-character limitations of Twitter help to focus the message. Like it or not, we live in an era of sound bites and snippet news. Today, speeches are written with the aim to facilitate and encourage sharing on social networks. The anaphora of François Hollande –“I, as President of the Republic …” – repeated 15 times during the presidential debate with his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 French presidential campaign, became an instant Internet meme and a trending topic on Twitter.

If Twitter had existed in 1963, “I have a dream” would have become Martin Luther King’s most retweeted tweet. The historic quote still resonates half a century later. Come to think of it, all famous quotes can easily fit into 140 characters. Add a link to the tweet and followers can read more on a website or in a blog post, which often go hand in hand with the Twitter feed. A tweet is like the headline of an article: If the headline is well written and enticing, you will read the rest of the article; clumsy and badly worded, you will skip over it.

No other social network allows a government message to go viral or potentially reach such a worldwide audience. There is no other social network that allows for direct and unfettered interaction with world leaders. Today, anyone can send an @mention to a world leader on Twitter. That leader might not see the @mention personally, but his or her staff will definitely get the message.

The power of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook is that they connect people globally and bring citizens closer to their leaders. The social-media team of the White House has best understood how to connect the president directly with his constituents using all major social networks available. The White House uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and even Reddit to connect with Americans. U.S. President Barack Obama has sat down for two YouTube interviews, where the questions were sourced from the YouTube community via video. He travelled to Facebook headquarters for a town hall meeting moderated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who put questions from Facebook users to the president. The U.S. administration organized a Twitter Town Hall at the White House, moderated by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Obama used the occasion to publicly write and send a personal tweet signed “bo,” sending himself the first question to kick off the Q&A session. In the run-up to the 2012 U.S. elections, Obama’s social-media activity picked up, culminating with an AMA – “ask me anything” – session on Reddit. Obama remains the most digitally savvy political leader in the world, with a massive Twitter following of more than 20 million.

That said, Obama’s (@BarackObama) Twitter activity is clearly targeted at his constituents and re-election. His campaign account rarely mentions any foreign-policy statements, and systematically blanks his international trips. G8 and G20 meetings with his peers are generally not reported on his personal Twitter feed. At the recent General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, most world leaders used Twitter to live tweet their remarks, or to share pictures of their bilateral meetings. There was no mention of the president’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on the @BarackObama account, which tweeted about bumper stickers and NFL referees instead.

Who is tweeting personally?

Barack Obama rarely tweets personally, and if he does, his “bo” tweets become national news stories. Thirty heads of state and government do their own tweeting. The most conversational are Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (@AmamaMbabazi) and the prime minister of Rwanda, Pierre Damien Habumuremyi (@HabumuremyiP), both of whom engage personally with their followers on Twitter. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (@Najib_Mikati) holds occasional Twitter chats with his followers, while Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (@NajibRazak) invited his 500,000th follower for breakfast. The Croatian government organizes regular tweet-ups for 50 lucky followers at its government offices.

Unfortunately, all too often, politicians only discover Twitter during election campaigns, when their every word and deed is suddenly documented by their digital teams in 140 characters or less. Once elected, these accounts often go silent. Among the famous dormant profiles are the accounts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (@DilmaBR) and French President François Hollande (@FHollande): Both abandoned their Twitter followers after taking office. Interestingly, both accounts have nonetheless continued to gain followers, indicating a clear desire on the part of the people to connect with their leaders.

Some argue that politicians simply do not have the time to engage personally on social networks that are often seen as a distraction. This might be true, but if world leaders have time to read newspapers or answer letters (as Barack Obama still does every day), they should surely take the time to at least dip into their Twitter feed for half an hour each week to engage in an unscripted and impromptu Twitter chat with their followers.

Twitter Connections

Barack Obama might be the most followed world leader, but he is not the best-connected, having failed to establish mutual Twitter relations with his peers around the world. Obama only follows two other government leaders – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (@MedvedevRussiaE), and the prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg (@JensStoltenberg). Obama and the White House are not following any other G20 leaders, happily ignoring Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (@PMHarper), Mexican President Felipe Calderón (@FelipeCalderon), and French President François Hollande (@FHollande). The White House follows @Number10Gov and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (@SebastianPinera), but has not yet acknowledged the arrival of the U.K. prime minister (@David_Cameron) on Twitter.

More than a quarter of all world leaders and governments (76) follow Barack Obama, and 61 follow the White House (@WhiteHouse), according to a recent study conducted by Burson-Marsteller on Twitter relations between world leaders. It is unclear why @BarackObama and the @WhiteHouse do not reciprocate the favour: Is it a political decision, or simply ignorance of the power of direct relations on Twitter?

Burson-Marsteller’s Twiplomacy study found that EU President Herman van Rompuy (@euHvR) is the best-connected world leader, mutually following 11 peers. Australia’s prime minister (@JuliaGillard) is the second-best-connected leader, with 10 mutual connections, followed by the Korean presidency (@BlueHouseKorea), the U.K. government (@Number10gov), and the Russian prime minister (@MedvedevRussia), all of whom follow (and are followed by) nine other world leaders. However, almost half of all world leader accounts don’t follow any of their peers on Twitter.

Surely world leaders should follow each other on Twitter, particularly if their countries have good diplomatic relations. Not following a peer on Twitter says a lot about the relationship between two people, and, by extension, about the relations between their countries. Not following someone back on Twitter is tantamount to a diplomatic snub, and blocking someone on Twitter will soon be synonymous with severing diplomatic ties. The violent and undiplomatic Twitter attack in May 2012 by former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez on Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, calling him an “assassin,” was an example of how a Twitter spat might get out of hand and how just 140 characters could be the spark that starts a war.

Twiplomatic Relations

Some governments leave the tweeting and relationship-building to their foreign-affairs ministers and diplomats, whose role is to represent their country. Eighty-two countries’ foreign ministries currently have Twitter accounts, and 47 ministers of foreign affairs are personally on Twitter. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is the latest to join the flock. Until recently, he followed just one account, but since his British colleague, Foreign Secretary William Hague (@WilliamJHague), tweeted a Follow Friday on Sept. 28, 2012, Fabius has begun following his foreign-minister peers in Australia, Canada, Israel, Italy, Norway, Poland, Rwanda, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.K., who are all personally on Twitter.

Many of the tweeting foreign ministers have established Twitter relations by mutually following each other. Canada’s John Baird (@JohnBairdOWN) is following the U.K.’s William Hague (@WilliamJHague), Mexico’s Patricia Espinosa (@PEspinosaC), Italy’s Giulio Terzi (@GiulioTerzi), Sweden’s Carl Bildt (@CarlBildt), and Australia’s Bob Carr (@BobJCarr). The odd one out is Bob Carr (@BobJCarr), who is the only foreign minister not following his colleagues back. The two most popular foreign ministers on Twitter, Abdullah bin Zayed (@ABZayed) of the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoğlu (@Ahmet_Davutoglu) – who each have more than 400,000 followers – do not connect with all their peers, either. Abdullah bin Zayed follows the foreign ministers of Bahrain (@KhalidAlKhalifa) and Jordan (@NasserJudeh), while Ahmet Davutoğlu only follows Sweden’s Carl Bildt (@CarlBildt).

Carl Bildt is the third-most-followed foreign minister, with 158,000 followers. He famously used Twitter to get in touch with his colleague in Bahrain: “@khalidalkhalifa Trying to get in touch with you on an issue,” he tweeted. Carl Bildt, on Twitter since Jan. 2, 2009, is an early adopter of new technology. When he was the prime minister of Sweden, he became the first foreign leader to send an email to then U.S. president Bill Clinton. The Swedish foreign minister and his counterpart in Finland (@AlexStubb) are two ministers worth following – both write thoughtful and entertaining tweets to give a glimpse of their daily policy-making without ever being too promotional.

English is the language of Twiplomacy

Not surprisingly, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tweets in French, the traditional language of diplomacy. However, it is English that has become the main language of Twiplomacy. In order to reach a large global English-speaking audience, the foreign ministries of Belarus, Estonia, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, and Turkey have all set up separate English Twitter channels alongside their local language feeds. The French and Turkish foreign ministries have even set up specific accounts in Arabic, an indication of the growing importance of that region for both countries.

Over the past year, foreign offices have encouraged their embassies and diplomats to use Twitter. The government of Israel’s Twitter activity is probably the best example of how to use Twitter to shape foreign policy. The Israeli foreign ministry has Twitter accounts for 125 of its missions, each with the same branding – the official emblem of the State of Israel – and tweets in more than 23 languages, Arabic and Persian included. The @Israel account, managed by the foreign ministry’s digital-diplomacy team, serves as the focal point for Israel’s governmental Twitter activity. The account maintains updated lists of its 125 missions, 47 government officials, and 33 government offices on Twitter. During the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, the account campaigned for a minute of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes killed during the Munich Olympics 40 years ago, tweeting the hashtag #StandForMunich11 every 11 minutes.

By comparison, the U.S. State Department lists98 embassies, 23 consulates, and five missions on Twitter. The U.K. foreign office in London boasts 80 embassies, consulates, and missions on Twitter, while the French foreign ministry counts 58 embassies and consulates, and the Russian foreign ministry has 46 embassies and two ambassadors on the social network. The Canadian foreign ministry only lists three accounts – its ambassadors in Austria and the Netherlands, and its consulate general in New York.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a list of 21 ambassadors on Twitter, including Jon Benjamin (@JonBenjamin19), the U.K.’s ambassador to Chile, who converses in Spanish with his 9,000 followers. A couple of days ago Jon Benjamin tweeted a public excuse for a private Twitter message insulting to Argentineans that he inadvertently sent on his public Twitter feed. The second most followed U.K. ambassador on Twitter is London’s representative in Lebanon, Tom Fletcher. @HMATomFletcher is a self-proclaimed “Twiplomat,” and frequently engages in public Twitter exchanges with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (@Najib_Mikati).

Tom Fletcher is probably the staunchest advocate of Twiplomacy. In a speech in 2011, he described the transformation of his profession:

[T]he most effective diplomats will carry iPads rather than letters of credence; a digital demarche will be more powerful than a diplomatic one; and the setpiece international conference of the 20th century will be replaced by more fluid, open interaction with the people whose interests we are there to represent.

Tom Fletcher also warned that Twitter “is just one tool among many. The rest of the day job still matters. Don’t get too sucked in.” Others argue that diplomatic nuances cannot possibly be contained in 140 characters. That may be true, but nothing prevents one from sending multiple tweets in short succession to get a lengthy argument across (at the risk of losing the big picture) like the president of Mali did when he tweeted a letter of congratulations to newly elected French President François Hollande in nine successive tweets.

Twitter has already replaced traditional diplomatic exchanges. Instead of sending a “note verbale” to the foreign ministry in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul took to Twitter to express his dismay at the closure of USAID activities in Russia: “We regret this decision. MT @MFA_Russia has notified the US that USAID must stop operating in Russia from October 1,” he tweeted. Ambassador McFaul’s Twitter activity has irked the Kremlin, and has shown that a digitally connected diplomat no longer depends on local media channels to connect directly with the citizens of the host country. For Ambassador McFaul, who organizes regular Q&A sessions, Twitter provides a direct conduit to change the hearts and minds of the Russian people.

For those not yet convinced about the power of social networks, consider this: If Facebook were a country, it would be the third-largest, behind China and India. Twitter would rank fourth, with more than half a billion registered users. Their executives are courted like royalty: Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are the unelected leaders of supra-national states, wielding more power than many world leaders. It is hardly surprising that world leaders now include trips to the tech giants in Silicon Valley to their official visits to the United States. Then-Russian-president Dmitry Medvedev sent his first tweet from Twitter headquarters on June 23, 2010. Turkish President Abdullah Gül had his tour of the new Twitter offices in San Francisco in May 2012.

In conclusion, whether we like the expression or not, “Twiplomacy” is here to stay. Twitter and Facebook have already had a massive impact on the way our leaders interact with each other, and our diplomats connect with their host countries. Drafting a tweet, a Facebook post, or a blog post should be as much a part of the curriculum in diplomacy schools as writing government cables or “notes verbales.” I am not suggesting that social networks will replace face-to-face meetings between world leaders and government representatives altogether, but the digital connections leaders can now make will surely deepen and broaden existing relations with new audiences.

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