Every morning of the current administration, Washington wakes up to numerous tweets dashed off by President Trump in the pre-dawn hours and then scrambles to make sense of it all. Is he setting in motion a new policy? Did he just contradict an existing policy? What’s his beef with any number of Democrats, athletes or celebrities?
While understanding the motives and intent of the president’s daily tweets can be confusing, one thing is for certain: From the Oval Office on down, the D.C. conversation is happening on social media.
If you’re an ambassador or embassy in Washington trying to make your voice heard over the din, engaging online with the policy community – just as you do in real life – should be a top priority. It’s a way to reach policymakers, thought leaders and the general public, push key issues in your own words and be a public face for your country.
According to an analysis by my firm, Cogent Strategies, about one-quarter of ambassadors in Washington are on Twitter. Looking at embassy accounts, 64 percent are on Twitter and 63 percent are on Facebook. Surprisingly, 17 percent of embassy social media accounts and 10 percent of ambassadorial Twitter accounts do not use English as the primary language on the majority of their content – missed opportunities to advance their country’s cause in English-dominated Washington.
Realizing that Washington embassies vary vastly in size, personnel and resources, it isn’t realistic to think that the smallest of embassies would have the same social media capacity as, say, the Embassy of the United Kingdom. At the same time, smaller embassies could see disproportionally positive benefits by prioritizing social media above other forms of advocacy.
The playing field is more level on social media than it is in any other lever of influence in Washington simply because the accounts themselves are free and it’s possible to succeed on effort alone. Savvy countries will devote even modest resources to social media – whether in terms of staff, consultant time or advertising dollars – in order to stand out from the pack. In other words, it doesn’t take a huge investment to build up a social following or spur engagement on a country’s priority issues. Embassy social media accounts also serve as promotional tools to encourage investment and tourism, showcase culture and embassy activities, highlight trade relations with the United States, share positive media coverage and speak to diaspora populations.
But while embassy accounts can act as good promotional platforms, it’s ambassadors themselves who have the real opportunity to engage directly with journalists, influencers and policymakers – thanking them for productive meetings, correcting the record and, ultimately, proving to their capitals back home that they are actively engaged in Washington.
An ambassador is also a public face who can exhibit a little personality on social media and give Americans a sense for how people from their country think, act and respond to being or working in the United States.
I once worked with an ambassador who developed a reputation on Twitter for taking tough questions over social media, often through scheduled Twitter Q&A-style town halls. Those sessions did more to advance his country’s messages in Washington in one hour than any other type of Washington advocacy outside of a meeting with the president or a cabinet official.
Another key aspect of social media engagement is the multiplier effect. When an ambassador speaks at a think tank or an embassy partners with a business for an event, the system of tagging and sharing — so important to social media — creates an echo chamber for your message, embassy and nation.
Increasing diplomatic social media activity does not come without some challenges. Perhaps most daunting is encountering comment and criticism in a public forum. At the same time, that criticism can be helpful, essentially acting as a preview of some of the pushback you might encounter from lawmakers, think tankers or journalists. Being aware of it helps you be prepared for it.
In the social media world, preparation also means having a crisis plan in place and having a content calendar ready. A crisis plan helps you manage instances when pushback becomes stronger than normal. A content calendar helps you create a steady drumbeat of social media posts that highlight your core issues. Putting a small promotional budget to use is also important, including targeting the right people on social media to highlight your key issues or content.
Like a cold pool at the beginning of summer, dipping a toe into the social media waters can cause anxiety and trepidation. But once you’ve taken the plunge, the water quickly warms up. Now is as good a time as any to give it a try.
Will Bohlen, a former journalist and think tank official, is a senior vice president at Cogent Strategies and has advised more than a dozen countries on public relations matters in the United States.