Typologies of social media accounts in public diplomacy

Public diplomacy actors are those who contribute to the projection of a country’s positive international image as a part of the national public diplomacy strategy. These actors are not always strictly diplomats since they may not be explicitly part of the diplomatic organisation. This introduces a differentiation between diplomatic social media accounts which are managed by diplomatic staff, and public diplomacy accounts which are usually accounts that support public diplomacy communication efforts as part of long- and short-term initiatives and international events.

The typology of diplomatic actors on social media can be defined according to the diplomatic organisation and the potential actors and topics they are most likely to engage with. Therefore, diplomatic actors on social media can be categorised as leaders, ministers and ministries of foreign affairs, thematic accounts, embassies and consulates.

Typologies of diplomatic Twitter account

Diplomatic social media accounts Actors to engage with Listening topics
Leaders Predominately domestic, but also international Political
Ministers of foreign affairs Domestic and International Political and foreign affairs
Ministries of foreign affairs Domestic and International Foreign affairs
Thematic/Initiative Domestic and International Specific
Embassies Diaspora and foreigners Consular services, bilateral relations, foreign affairs
Consulates Diaspora and foreigners Consular services and bilateral relations

Leadersaccounts are those belonging to heads of state/government, who can post as political leaders and representatives of the government. They are likely to post content about all kinds of political issues, but predominately about domestic political debates. These are usually personal accounts (for example @realDonaldTrump), as distinct from official position accounts (@POTUS) or organisational accounts (for example @WhiteHouse), which are intended to represent the views of the executive in a more institutional manner. Despite the fact that many studies in digital diplomacy have been focusing on leaders’ accounts, the activity on those accounts, while quite significant in terms of the political projection of a country abroad, represents only a small segment of public diplomacy activities on social media. Moreover, leaders’ accounts usually do not show direct signs of ‘listening’ to users because of the large number of followers they attract, and if listening activities do take place, they are usually delegated.

Another type of public diplomacy actor is ministers and ministries of foreign affairs. The difference between the two is that while ministers probably engage more with the domestic political debate and with a more personal approach, ministries’ accounts tend tofocus more on international affairs and use a more cautious and institutional communicational approach.

Then, there are many thematic accounts, focusing on specific issues. This type of account is usually managed directly by diplomats or staff at departments of foreign affairs. An example of the former would be the Australian DFAT’s (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) Twitter account @NewColomboPlan on its New Colombo Plan programme or @FarnesinaVerde on the Italian foreign ministry’s environmental sustainability initiatives. In this case the content and audience are strictly confined to the theme of the account, which may target both domestic and foreign audiences. Sometimes these accounts are managed by external service providers, especially for national branding initiatives, as is for example @AusUnlimited. Temporary accounts can also be created as part of a one-off social media campaign and deleted or abandoned after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Finally, embassies and consulates mainly target a country’s diaspora and the citizens of the host country, with the difference that embassies focus more in bilateral ties with the host country and listening to the citizens of the host country, while consulates concentrate more on listening to the diaspora community and on visa-services seekers.

There are also myriad accounts that can be part of a national public diplomacy strategy and that can fulfil a temporary purpose in relation to international events, such as an Expo or a national branding campaign (for example @UKPavilion2020). These accounts are not managed by diplomats nor are they directly related to foreign office activities, but they still play an important role in the projection of a positive national image abroad. They can be promoted and economically supported by other government departments and can focus on national branding, international trade and deals, culture, student exchange or aid programs and other international initiatives. Moreover, local governments and cities are increasingly active internationally, and they are becoming a central focus in place-branding studies.

The growing number of social media accounts that can fulfil public diplomacy activities complicates the coordination and consistent projection of the national image abroad. The creation of temporal thematic accounts is becoming a common practice in public diplomacy communication on social media. However, the fact that these types of accounts require so much effort to attract users and listen to them, while they may draw attention away from other accounts managed by ministries of foreign affairs and governmental agencies, begs questions about their effectiveness (refer to Cassidy and Manor 2016, 8).

There is a general tendency of increasing the number of social media accounts and embracing new platforms in public diplomacy practices. This might amplify the messages of foreign affairs ministries online in terms of volume, but this does not assure that social media users are paying attention to such messages. Although the inclusion of social media in diplomacy seems to have become mainstream practice, it remains unclear whether the growing number of diplomatic social media accounts contributes to the advancement of one country’s foreign policies and the creation of spaces for international dialog with NGO’s and citizens, as Shaun Riordan has pointed out in his blog.

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