In embassies and chancelleries the world over, ediplomacy seems to be the new rock & roll. Perhaps we have even reached the point, to bastardise Aneurin Bevan's classic quote about unilateral nuclear disarmament, where to deprive a foreign secretary or ambassador of a Twitter account is to send him naked into the conference chamber.
Last week, DFAT finally lifted its ambassadorial tweeting embargo, signaling an end to a culture of online reticence that was starting to cop some flak. This month, in a global survey of ediplomacy for the BBC, I singled out Australia as a laggard. Fergus Hanson at the Lowy Institute, a global authority on ediplomacy, has called DFAT a 'Luddite hold-out'. Buckingham Palace has a more active Twitter account.
Now, though, Bruce Miller, the ambassador in Tokyo, is airborne at @AusAmbJP. You can follow Greg Moriarty, Australia's man in Jakarta, at @DubesAustralia. Just in time for the Olympics, Australia House in London – @AusHouseLondon – is tweeting up a storm. Its first tweet was to welcome the Australian team to London, but it has also used the social media platform to dispense useful consular advice.
Bob Carr, the tweeting Foreign Affairs Minister, seems determined to demonstrate that his department can also tweet, although it is a flyweight compared to heavy hitters like the UK and US.
To work effectively, the UK Foreign Office believes, ediplomacy has to shape the debate, to engage and to inform. It urges its diplomats not to use social media as a stream of consciousness or as the online diary of a diplomat. It is far more targeted and 'on message' than that. The Foreign Office in London views Tom Fletcher, its ambassador in Lebanon, (@HMATomFletcher) as a model tweeter. One of his most recent tweets showed how a diplomatic viewpoint could be deftly distilled into 140 characters:
If Lebanon succeeds in genuine 'disassociation' from events in Syria, could extend model to disassociation from wider regional manipulation.
This week, a new global study of 'Twiplomacy' from the PR firm Burson-Marsteller showed that something of a digital divide is opening up. Three-quarters of European governments are active on Twitter, while the figure for Africa is 60% and 56% in Asia. In Oceania, only four out of the 14 countries have a presence on Twitter, which these days seems akin to building an embassy without a flagpole.
It comes as little surprise to learn that Barack Obama is the most followed world leader, with over 17 million followers. His most popular tweet, interestingly, was 'same-sex couples should be able to get married', which gained over 60,000 retweets (or RTs, in Twitter's abbreviated argot). Next comes Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
Tellingly, Vladimir Putin does not follow anyone, thus shutting himself out of the 'Twitter conversation'. Over 50 global leader accounts, including that of French President Francois Hollande, went quiet after they took office, revealing how many leaders view it primarily as a vote-winning tool rather than a diplomatic one. In another indication of how Twitter is not being used for any meaningful high-level diplomacy, nearly half of all world leaders on Twitter – 120 out of 264 – do not follow any of their peers.
But that misses the point of the potential for social media in the public diplomacy sphere. One of its primary functions is to indicate a willingness to engage.
A good illustration came after writing the BBC ediplomacy piece, when I suddenly found myself in Twitter conversation with Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. At the end of the exchange, when he linked to a recent blog post on the progress made after the 2010 earthquake, I came away with an altered and more positive view of his troubled land.
Australians may be heartened to hear that Julia Gillard is the second best 'connected' world leader in the Twittersphere, with 11 'follows' from her peers (the EU President Herman van Rompuy tops the league on that front). Can DFAT achieve a similar level of online engagement?
Photo by Flickr user ABC Archive.