A US Look At The New Digital DiplomacyPublished on 6 October 2011 @ 11:21 pm
By William New, Intellectual Property Watch
Social media has changed the old-fashioned rules of diplomacy, a senior US State Department advisor on social media told aspiring diplomats in Geneva today. The established rules of decorum and etiquette are giving way to a more interactive, less hierarchical system.
In the old world, you knew who to talk to, said Christina Tribble, the State Department’s senior advisor for social media. Now you don’t.
And when you talk to a journalist now, you don’t know if they will respect the old rules of on record, off record, or deep background. It might be a blogger or social media writer for whom there are no rules.
Now it’s not just journalists from the most elite publications or heads of state that ambassadors need to speak to, but it could be activists, bloggers or others who can control the message too.
And when the ambassador say to call a journalist and get something retracted because its “not what I said,” the problem is that it doesn’t matter because it is “what was heard.” So ambassadors are being retrained to speak to “truthiness,” she said, a word made up by American comedian Steve Colbert to refer to something people feel they know despite the absence of actual evidence. With 140 character messages on Twitter, perception takes precedence over a fuller, more accurate explanation.
She gave an example of a series of photos from a scene of violence in the Middle East each of which displayed a child’s toy – stuffed Disney cartoon characters – in the foreground. These photos made a big impact on global perceptions about the situation, creating the perception that innocent children were victims there, but likely were faked, with the toys set out in the photo for effect, she said. But the suspicion of them being faked came well after they had already had their effect.
But governments now also can have more direct communication with people themselves, she said. Governments used to have to communicate through the foreign press now can communicate directly on the ground in the countries through social media and websites.
Governments and others are learning that rather than just give people messages that you want them to hear, you can be much more effective by talking about what is being talked about already. “We have to share the stage,” Tribble said. As an example, she showed the website of a US mission in Indonesia (in local language “because it’s for them”) that had posted something about the death of Apple leader Steve Jobs and had quickly gotten hundreds of comments.
Also important is the visual side, use of dynamic images that make a point. She said it is too bad for ambassadors who may have been expecting to have their pictures on the website all the time, meeting with various officials, but the more effective photos often will be about more than them.
Tribble spoke on 6 October at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, located in a vernal hilltop park behind the UN and across from the US mission. The subject was “Innovative Diplomacy in a Digital World,” and Professor Ivan Ureta of the Geneva School of Diplomacy also spoke at the event.
William New may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.