Branding Ambassadors: Heads of Mission on Facebook

DFAT’s 2016-18 digital media strategy calls for senior diplomats to “think creatively about pursuing social media opportunities to shape debate and manage challenging issues, in the

same way they do for other forms of communication.” Also, “all Australian Heads of Mission will be encouraged to use at least one social media platform by 2018 to engage, influence and inform on Australian policy in their countries of accreditation.”

My research into how diplomatic missions use Facebook has identified five forms of communication that Ambassadors can – and to some degree do – attempt, with varying levels of success.

This analysis – the Facebooking Diplomacy Project – uses data from 158 Facebook pages (over 70,000 posts, covering the whole of 2016) published by eight nations (Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, UK, USA) in 23 locations.

First, outward-facing publicity, the goals of which are to promote Australian policy and activities. These include records of formal visits and functions, often including dignitaries; and reports of informal events, often including visiting entertainers, sports teams, school groups and the like. Standard grip and grin, usually, but sometimes with a key message attached.

Going by the engagement metrics (likes, comments, shares) some of these occasions are evidently important, namely: arrivals and introductions, farewells, disasters, and memorials and commemorations. Heads of Mission (HOMs) are well-advised to pay attention to these.

Other posts, typically a photo of officials in grey suits attending a meeting or presentation or opening ceremony, are – according to the metrics – far less interesting but provide a record of events and do not require a lot of time or effort and are therefore, overall, useful.

HOMs also do very well when they get out of the diplomatic bubble and participate in the social life of the community, such as charity functions, school events, and anything related to food and hospitality. Australia’s representative in Taipei got a great online response (10 times the average) when she participated in The Salvation Army’s CEO Sleepout.

HOMs also get a warm response when they invite the community into their lives. The former US Ambassador to South Korea posted announcements on Facebook when both of his new children were born. (And his Bassett Hound has a Twitter feed that has, I’ve heard, a following among South Korean government officials.) But most HOMs might be understandably reluctant to involve their family to this extent.

Second, inward-facing publicity, the effect of which is either to drive support among a domestic constituency or to draw attention to one’s public diplomacy efforts, demonstrating support for DFAT’s strategy and thereby improve career prospects. While the second of these may seem self-absorbed, it is inevitable and probably unavoidable especially as publicity can be both outward and inward-facing.

But in some cases, it appears that the communication is not really meant for a broader local audience. For example, when it is not in the local language or not translated, or not utilising a mode of communications commonly used by the local audience, or when overly formal language is used (e.g. Chargé d’affaires for Acting (or Deputy) Ambassador). These types of posts typically received much lower than average levels of engagement. No surprises there – they are not meant for a wide audience and so they don’t gain one.

This may really be neither here nor there, although there are some suggestions dull posts get punished by Facebook’s Newfeed algorithm. Also, when significant time and resources are engaged, the rewards do not justify the investment. An example of this is a podcast hosted by a senior diplomat, who conducts English-language interviews with Australians (including high profile visitors) in a country where English is not widely spoken and postcasts are not popular. This is almost a good idea – and innovations like this are worth a shot – but misses the mark.

Third, public engagement, assumes several forms but generally seeks to somehow connect with the local audience. This can occur in matters of degree but all share a common trait of placing the targeted public closer to the centre of the conversation.

The most obvious indicator may be the language used but most Facebook posts are posted in English and the local language, so that’s covered. Less obvious (to most of us) but more engaging (for locals) are uses of local culture, especially pop culture.

The recently-departed US Consul General in Hong Kong, for example, posted an affectionate farewell video in which he spoke in Cantonese (passably, I’m told) as well as multiple references to A Chinese Odyssey, a much-loved movie by famous actor/director Stephen Chow. This video was widely shared, liked and (favourably) commented on (among the highest I recorded, and 100 times the page’s average); in the comments, Hong Kongers praised the attempts at Cantonese and laughed at the in-joke.

Other forms of public outreach invite direct participation from the public through quizzes and photo competition for prizes. Partly, this is a way of boosting a post’s ranking in Facebook’s Newsfeed, which is smart. It is also a way to promote events such as exhibitions by giving out tickets. These don’t typically feature HOMs.

‘Facebook live’ video posts are another way to connect with local audiences. Typically, these involve soliciting questions from the audience which are then answered in a video interview. Facebook’s announcement last March that it was going to boost live videos in its Newsfeed may have offered encouragement to public diplomacy teams as some HOMs participated in these, with moderate success.

These are worth considering if the interview is lively, relevant and well promoted.

Live videos I have seen that were very successful include some from the US Embassy in Mexico that offer practical, useful advice about how to apply for various visas. These, however, didn’t feature the HOM, but in future they could.

Lastly, dealing with disruptive posts and comments is an inevitable social media management task, although in my analysis this was always left to the staff to manage. This is generally the right approach: sometimes people post to blow off steam or to pick a fight and involving the HOM could escalate matters.