Last year, the Public Diplomacy division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) began an experiment. Joint Secretary Navdeep Suri describes his motives thus: “It was partly recognition that most of the work we were doing was, subconsciously, aimed at ‘People Like Us’. Whether it’s India or elsewhere, when you’ve got an under-30 generation that is 60 percent of the demographic, and they’re the Internet-literate influencers of tomorrow, you need to reach out in their space. Secondly, we see social media not just as a tool for disseminating information; it is also valuable for getting feedback, listening, engaging with people, so that a relationship is built. Thirdly, to see whether we can create a space for narratives about the good work India does overseas — India’s ‘soft power.’”
He approached the Department of Information Technology, and got funding under its Innovative IT Projects scheme for a pilot project to see how his division could use social media to improve interaction with citizens. Since then Suri, with Abhay Kumar, Under Secretary at the MEA, have set up Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, and a new public diplomacy Web site. It has been a steady process of building, listening and learning. Most of it not in the media glare.
Until, that is, the events of the Middle East and the Jasmine revolutions, in which social media played a small, but visible part. That was also when Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who had been, Suri says, hugely supportive all along, got herself a Twitter handle.
@ForSecNRao (which she later changed to @ForeignSecNRao ), started off slowly, stating why she was on Twitter (“I just want to be able to put messages out on our position on specific foreign policy issues of public interest.”), thanking people who had welcomed her, and saying little. Ten days later, she was well into the swing of things, tweeting about the situation in Bahrain and Egypt, evacuations in Libya, sending information, messages of reassurance, and replies to anxious queries. She was lucid, quick to respond, sometimes stern, always polite.
How did she reconcile diplomacy — nuanced, highly systematic interaction, careful responses, layers of protocol — with the anarchy of Twitter? “We need to be responsible, credible and authoritative and this can imply that we are less conversational and more deliberate in our approach. But what we have demonstrated, particularly during a crisis situation like the evacuation of our nationals from Libya, is that we can operate on a real-time basis to ensure that our information and responses are prompt. The response and reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and many young persons have described this as a harbinger of change in our attitudes.”
Since mid-March, the MEA has ramped up its social media presence with a slew of Facebook pages for Indian missions abroad, starting with Sofia and Washington. Says Rao, “You can see the emergence of a powerful phenomenon and it is important we remain engaged in this space. Keeping this in mind, we have asked our missions to establish a presence on Facebook or similar platforms wherever this is permitted under local laws.”
Who handles these accounts? In embassies where the ambassador is Net savvy, he or she is involved directly; in others, it’s younger Foreign Service officers who’ve taken the lead.
Suri is optimistic, if cautious. He feels the need to start developing a presence, but “We recognise that it doesn’t happen instantaneously: There is both a learning curve and the time it takes up to build friends or followers”. Keeping in mind that they represent the country, “We’ve suggested dos and don’ts. Initially use it for non-political stuff: Projecting cultural, community and business events. We hope that not only will people be sharing information, but people who are interested in India — and they can be from any ethnicity or community — join and participate. The don’ts: Stay clear of chatty, gossipy stuff, of passing judgements or opinions on the country in which you’re posted. The medium does not recognise any difference between publicly expressed views, official views and private views; you need to be aware of that. And try and respond as quickly as you can because credibility is key.”
What about negative experiences? The Internet can be a pretty nasty place, even for a hardened diplomat. “In the initial stages,” says Suri, “We had a bunch of individuals of a particular ideological leaning who would come down on us very hard and it would be sometimes fairly pointless and very visceral, and sometimes it wasn’t even focussed on any particular facet of the MEA; it was trashing the government. It was, occasionally, depressing to see the irrationality of some individuals and the violence with which they expressed their opinions. But I think you begin to understand, as you mature in the medium, that you’re out in the public space now, that if you’re going to get a lot of appreciation, as we did, then there will also be people who will say these things. I think we began to develop slightly thicker skins in our [laughs] understanding and appreciation of these … phenomena.”
INDIA’S SOCIAL DIPLOMACYmea.gov.in twitter.com/ForeignSecNRao twitter.com/VPrakashMEA twitter.com/ASCPV indiandiplomacy.in publicdiplomacy2010.in facebook.com/IndianDiplomacy twitter.com/indiandiplomacy issuu.com/indiandiplomacy indiandiplomacy.blogspot.com youtube.com/user/Indiandiplomacy
For an up-to-date list of pages for Indian missions abroad, refer to the links on facebook.com/IndianDiplomacy
Former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, can vouch for that. Tharoor began tweeting in March 2009 and has picked up almost a million followers (997,865 as of this writing). “The advantages are clear,” says Tharoor. “India acquires a new, young, literate and global audience for our foreign policy initiatives and positions. By being accessible to Internet searches, we earn goodwill. By providing accurate and timely information, we eliminate the risks of misrepresentation or distortion of our position. The pitfalls are the ever-present risk that something said on a social network could itself be taken out of context or misused by our critics.”
What happens next? Rao says, “We see social media becoming an integral part of our larger approach towards communications. This does not mean that we start neglecting the press, TV or other traditional media. But we intend to make sure that we are a part of the new media revolution.”
Suri thinks of it all as a work in progress. “If you look at the foreign offices around the world — and most of them tend to be conservative — you’ll find that, barring the US, the UK and a handful of others, there are not very many who are proactively using social media. If you want to benchmark yourself against the most progressive and the best, then I think we are gradually getting there.”