For Foreign Diplomats, Social Media’s Benefits Outweigh Its Risks

“Social media is about taking smart risks,” observed Victoria Esser, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the U.S. State Department. Unfortunately, the recent tragedy in Libya has reminded us that being stationed overseas can be a very dangerous occupation.

Esser appeared on a panel at the Social Good Summit on Saturday along with other foreign diplomats in order to provide attendees with a snapshot of their digital media experiences. The three-day conference takes place at New York’s 92nd Street Y during UN Week and concludes today.

The State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has embraced internal and external digital platforms as tools to interact with employees and the public. As Esser said, “nothing replaces face-to-face diplomacy, but social media cuts away time barriers.” She noted that the State Department had recently hosted a “Google hangout in Persian to engage in dialogue with Iran, where the U.S. doesn’t have an on-the-ground presence.” They invited a few journalists to join in.

Charles Ray, former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, pointed to another well-documented advantage of using social platforms. “Social media is not a magic wand, but it’s an effective tool to have ongoing conversations with people who are hard to reach with other methods.” He was referring to those who are under 30 years old; in developing countries, members of this demographic primarily use cell phones since they have only limited access to the internet.

Twitter has become to go-to digital platform for officials serving overseas. “More foreign diplomats are comfortable now using Twitter. While it doesn’t supplant traditional diplomacy, Twitter is also good for cultural diplomacy,” said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S.

Not surprisingly, diplomats must tread cautiously on Twitter. “You can’t get every tweet approved by the foreign minister,” Sarukhan noted. “I do my tweets in a more kosher and formal way.” Sarukhan and Ray both reported receiving occasional comments from hostile followers; Sarukhan in particular must choose his words wisely, given the tenuous nature of national security relations between Mexico and the U.S.