World news story

Twiplomacy – Riding the Digital Tiger

The top ten tips for Tweeting Ambassadors, many of which apply to others starting out in this medium. Around the World in 144 characters

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon
Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon

Few could have predicted, ten years ago as we watched those planes slam into the Twin Towers, that the world since 9/11 would be changed more by Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs than by George Bush and Osama Bin Laden.

Yet our kids are living this reality. My five year old can use Skype better than a telephone; a keyboard better than a pen; iTunes better than a CD player. His generation will have more opportunity than any before them to understand their world; to engage with their world; and to shape their world.

This digital tsunami creates a new context for all of us. No more so than in the Middle East, where this tumultuous, inspirational, rollercoaster year has shown that while regimes can ban the iPhone, iFreedom will always get through in the end.

I worked in No 10 for the last pen and paper PM, Tony Blair; for the first email PM, Gordon Brown; and for the first iPad PM, David Cameron. The delivery of government services by social media is going to be transformed in ways we civil servants cannot yet comprehend. Increasingly, it matters less what a Minister or diplomat says is our policy on an issue – and more what Google, Facebook or Twitter says is our policy. I’ve been to many - too many if I’m honest - international summits. Already the way in which leaders engage with people outside the room has changed entirely - with the 2005 Gleneagles G8 a turning point for mobilising public opinion in support of diplomatic negotiations, in that case on poverty. The London Cyber Conference this year had 800 attendees, but 6,000 people watched it livestreamed on line and 100,000 people visited the webpages.

Nowhere should we be more sensitive, more attuned, to social media than in international relations. Diplomacy has always been Darwinian: we have to evolve or die. Just as diplomats did when sea routes opened up, empires came and went, or when the telephone was invented. Someone once said that you could replace Foreign Office with a fax - we saw off the fax. Earlier this month, we finally saw off the telegram. The digital revolution has opened up a new frontier. Equipped with the right kit, and the right courage, diplomats should, as ever, be among its pioneers.

We must go boldly into this new terrain. Now we have to show that you can’t replace the Foreign Office with Wikipedia and Skype. With mountains of information available, we will have to compete harder for the attention of our leaders. But there will still be need for social media to be curated to help them understand and analyse trends, and to advise on national interests. In this brave new digital world, the 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.

And for me, a late and reluctant convert, the first tool we should reach for is Twitter. Diplomacy at its best has always been about both interpreting and shaping the world. Diplomats who only do the former should be in academia. Those who only do the latter should be in politics. Those that want to do both should be on Twitter. So I’m surprised when colleagues ask me why I’m on Twitter: why are you not on Twitter?

As the joke runs, “Dr Dr, can you help? I’m addicted to Twitter”. “Sorry Sir, I don’t follow you.”

Some examples of how social media is already changing our core diplomatic tasks:

  • for information gathering. I start the day by harvesting UK, French, US and Lebanese headlines - and informed individual comment on them - online. Only twenty years ago, my predecessor was sending reports back by diplomatic bag, and receiving newspapers one week late;
  • for analysis. None of us really saw the Arab Spring coming so fast. Would we have done if we had been further into Facebook and Twitter? If we had discovered the hashtag #tahrir earlier?;
  • to influence – twitter and blogging are key parts of getting our voices heard. Social media is a conversation – the audience is no longer passive; it expects to participate. Prime Minister Miqati and I did the first joint twitter session between a PM and an ambassador during his visit to London. And as part of our work in support of reform in the Arab world, we’re tweeting Arabic translations of British quotes on freedom and democracy;
  • for our cultural objectives, where we can be more assertive in promotion of English as the code for cyberspace;
  • for crisis management: future evacuations will rely increasingly on social media, to help get our messages to those we are trying to help;
  • to transform our commercial work: no longer about just giving info, but making connections. Even more so here with Lebanese spread out across the globe.

But as with all unchartered territory, social media also presents threats:

  • firstly, while social media tends to support our values: freedom in Burma or Arab world; exposing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe or Palestine; it also unleashes forces that oppose these values: extremism, cynicism, distraction, apathy;

  • secondly, the security dilemma. There is no doubt that hostile forces want to use increased openness against us. But the digital world will exist whether we engage or not. So we must protect our secret comms. But we can’t put a wall around UK digital any more than King Canute could hold back the sea. And, ultimately, nor will some regimes be forever able to hold their people back from the digital access to their fellow global citizens that they crave. I loved that tweet that circulated yesterday: if you put a wall around the Internet, we’ll build another Internet around your wall.

So, with all this mind, here are my ten tips for Tweeting Ambassadors, many of which I think apply to others starting out in this medium. Around the World in 144 characters..

  1. Know your audience: Of my followers, I judge 25% to want to know more about life of Ambassador (what’s it like to have bodyguards? Do we really eat nothing but Ferrero Rocher?), 25% to be UK political junkies, 25% to be Lebanon political junkies, and the rest to be a mixture of the informed, interested, eccentric, curious and hostile. The Lebanese proportion is increasing so I’m tweeting more about Lebanon.
  2. But don’t be defined by that audience. We need to reach out, without falling into trap of courting popularity. We’re not comedians, journalists or politicians, and we should not pretend to be. A high number of followers is a good sign you’re getting through, but is not an end in itself.
  3. Be authentic. People can see the real person underneath. Twitter is more raw, more real, more human than normal diplomatic interaction. People are more likely to stick around to read your press releases if they feel they know something about you as a person. I try to challenge preconceptions (for example about diplomats, or about life in Lebanon).
  4. Be consistent. Just as a politician can’t say one thing on the Des O’Connor sofa and another to Jeremy Paxman, a Twiplomat cannot face both ways. This is a challenge for diplomats used to pitching to two distinct audiences: one to whom they want to show what they are doing for national interests, and another that they want to show what they are doing for relationships with the host country. The two should not be incompatible. So, for example, when I tweet about a commercial deal, I try to explain what that means for jobs in Watford, alongside the tangible benefits to Lebanese economy.
  5. The best diplomacy is action not reportage, purpose not platitudes. So tweets should be about changing the world, not just describing how it looks.
  6. But understand and manage the risks, especially where the personal blurs with the political. I made the mistake of tweeting from my official account my private views on public sector strikes: I stand by my position, but it was the wrong platform. The ReTweet dilemma is also trickier for diplomats: UK politicians RT their opponents, but diplomats could not yet do so, since for some a RT implies approval. As with any public intervention, think before you tweet. Imagine how it looks out of context in a hostile media piece.
  7. Quality still matters. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, whatever you choose to tweet, tweet a good one. Just because there are huge amounts of rubbish out there, this does not mean you should compromise.
  8. Recognise the limits: as an individual diplomat, politically, and of Twitter. This is just one tool among many. The rest of the day job still matters. Don’t get too sucked in. Just as diplomats fail when their telegram report matters more to them than the action they are reporting, we should guard against caring more about the pithiness of the tweet than the subject we’re tweeting.
  9. But don’t take it personally. It is a jungle out there, and we have to get our brogues dirty. Every time I tweet about Palestine or Israel, I get vicious abuse from supporters of both sides, in pretty equal measure. We should listen, try to understand, but we won’t convince everyone. And nor should we seek to. But that’s not to say we should not engage some of our opponents more energetically, as UK MPs do to each other on Twitter. We’re not there yet, in diplomacy or Lebanese politics. But imagine the power of a twitter debate between diplomats or politicians who disagree. An interactive HardTalk.
  10. Finally, remember the national interest. Transnational debates can be fascinating, and alliances will become more issue based, more fluid. But diplomats cannot lose sight of our bottom lines: what makes my country richer? what makes my country more secure?

This is a huge deal. Cyber brings non-state actors closer to the conversation. That’s part of the point. Once they’re in, they can’t be ignored. We have to learn their language, just as much as we have to learn Chinese and Arabic. Diplomacy not just for diplomats. But not diplomacy without diplomats: social media should attract us. We tend to like communicating, are often extroverts, tend to be political junkies. We’re already writers, advocates and analysts. We must now become digital interventionists.

So thank you for inviting a diplomat, a tentative twiplomat, into your conversation today. I’d like to touch briefly on what I think Twiplomacy can add to our shared objective: Lebanese stability.

The Brits and Lebanese have always been open, outward looking traders and adventurers – so it is natural that we should - together - be charting and populating this new digital space.

And if coexistence is the essential purpose for diplomacy, let’s remember that is an existential purpose for Lebanon. To adapt my favourite Bobby Kennedy quote: each time a person tweets against oppression, they send out a ripple which, taken at the tide, creates a wave that can sweep aside the mightiest walls of injustice.

So how can we use Twitter to generate positive change in Lebanon? 25% of Lebanese citizens are on the internet, with the best gender balance - 45% - in the region. But, given lack of censorship, the mobility and talent of Lebanon’s expats, and Lebanon’s traditional talismanic intellectual role in region, shouldn’t Lebanon be playing an even greater leadership role in this space? This is the challenge to all of you in this room.

As our contribution, in 2012 the embassy will be seeking to start a conversation, using social as well as traditional media, on what kind of country Lebanese people want to see by 2020: #leb2020. To borrow from Niall Fergusson, we’ll be asking: what are Lebanon’s ‘killer apps’? What makes Lebanon special, and what are the keys to future stability, prosperity and sovereignty? We don’t plan to offer the right answers, but we hope to ask the right questions. Is your vision of Lebanon 2020 a sectarian and anxious society, known for partying, fighting and emigrating? I didn’t think so.

As Michaelangelo said, it is better to aim too high and miss it, than to aim too low and achieve it.

So, social media is here to stay. We should not be shutting the stable door on it, but jumping on the horse. Or, to stretch the metaphor back to your title, riding the digital tiger.

But, of course, all of you in this room know this better than me. You are now the change makers: seize tomorrow.

Published 16 December 2011