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The diplomatic Tweet

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, executive director of the Future of Diplomacy-project at Harvard University

From their secret, pin-striped world of the diplomatic bag and coded cables, modern ambassadors are taking to public social media often to by-pass staid communication rituals.

And a timely Tweet may be the best way to reach your citizens when things get serious.  

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, executive director of the Future of Diplomacy-project at Harvard University, says when it comes to managing crisis communication, “a lot of that wherewithal goes out of the window.” Ambassador Emil Brix, the incoming director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, adds: “we have to understand the perceptions of the people and we have to communicate that way.”

The Austrian system is trying to work strategically in an online-age, says Ambassador Michael Linhart, secretary general of the Austrian Foreign Ministry: “We have realised that there are new tools out there and we are trying to adapt to that change, especially in servicing our people when they are abroad and when they are in crisis situations.” He explains that especially in these moments, sending information directly to Austrians living abroad is particularly useful.

Technology-savvy Ambassador Leigh Turner, the UK-head of mission to Austria adds: “In crisis, the new technology is something that offers new opportunities. For example, via a Facebook-page, you can instantly communicate with thousands of people to give them the latest information on how to get to the airport – this goes straight to the people.”

Ambassador Turner has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter, over 1000 followers on Instagram and has become a well-known figure in Austrian diplomatic circles. He alters his means of communication according to the local conditions at his current posting. His Instagram-profile, for example, he created mostly because a lot fewer Austrians are on Twitter compared to the picture-service. Popularity online has an additional value for Ambassador Turner who says the profile he acquired with his embassy on Twitter “makes it easy for people to reach out and then for me to appear on TV shows or for interviews.”

For Daniel Röthlin, a young attaché for European law at the Austrian Foreign Ministry and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, it’s personal: “Social media can become a main tool of communication with the broader public. If you have a great Twitter-account, that’s a great way to make yourself more known to the public but also let the public know that a diplomat is just a person like everybody else.”

Ambassador Linhart explains that the classical profile of a young diplomat is partly evolving due to new expectations of the public. At the Austrian Foreign Ministry, more and more people are sought who have experience in using online communication tools and also are aware of the strategies behind them, says the Ambassador. Despite the advent of Twitter as a tool for public diplomacy, Ambassador Brix warns: “As a young diplomat, be aware that you are in the eye of the storm and don’t expect that you know what the future will be. It’s become more important that you use your diplomatic skills than it ever used to be.” Mr Röthlin adds: “Communication as a whole has to be seen as a whole package where social media can help. But in this field, eventually you will never be able to abandon human interaction or letters.”

By Cathy Lankes, Alpbach Media Academy

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