Two weeks ago I published an analysis of the 2015 MFA social network. My analysis found that over the past year Norway’s MFA has become one of the most dominant foreign ministries among its peers. In fact, Norway’s MFA is one of only four foreign ministries to rank high on all three parameters I evaluated indicating that it one of the most followed MFAs among its peers and serves as an important hub of information linking together MFAs that do not follow one another directly.
The results of Norway’s digital diplomacy surge begs the question what is the Norwegian MFA doing right? Has it adopted new digital diplomacy model? Has it dramatically increased the resources allocated to social media activity? Or is it simply a late bloomer in the field of Twiplomacy?
The answer to these questions came last week when Norway’s embassy to the US posted an article dealing with its new Virtual Ambassador Program (VAP). As part of this program, Norway’s Ambassador to the US has online conversations with students from various American universities. Such Skype conversations enable the Ambassador to directly engage with American students and answer questions regarding various aspects of Norway’s foreign policy (e.g., the Arctic, NATO).
As the Embassy’s article states “VAP is a new Embassy initiative where the Ambassador invites universities to participate in an online interactive dialogue”.
Norway’s VAP program is truly fascinating as it represents an important conceptual shift in the practice of digital diplomacy. To date, engagement between MFAs/embassies and online audiences is limited in scope and subject matter. MFAs may invite followers to Q&A sessions yet such sessions usually deal with only one issue (e.g., disability rights). MFA followers are therefore unable to ask questions regarding other, more pressing, issues. Moreover, MFAs seem to dedicate Q&A sessions to non-controversial issues. For instance, during the first months of the Ukrainian crisis the US State Department held several Q&A sessions with followers yet these did not deal with the conflict with Russia but with other, less sensitive, topics such as US aid to children in Syria. It is therefore fair to say that most MFAs have adopted an engagement model that is risk averse and which enables them to control the conversation.
Norway’s VAP program introduces a different engagement model. The Skype conversations between the Ambassador and US students are not limited in scope or subject matter. This enables students to query the ambassador on a wide range of issues and even to voice criticism of Norway’s foreign policy. By not limiting the conversation, Ambassadors participating in the VAP program express a willingness to foster dialogic relations with foreign audiences, relations that are based on openness, mutual respect; a two way exchange of information and an understating that online audiences must be valued.
While Norway’s new Virtual Ambassador Program is not without its perils, as conversations may soon turn into online attacks of Norwegian foreign policy, its benefits out way the risks.
One such benefit is that the VAP program meets the expectations of SNS users. Social media is expressive in nature. Thus, SNS users wish to express themselves and to have others acknowledge the relevance of such expressions. As opposed to issue-specific Q&A sessions, open conversations enable SNS users to express their opinion on topics that they feel are of relevance. Thus, open engagement models acknowledge the importance of what SNS followers have to say.
Secondly, social media is viewed as democratic and status free. As oppose to structured Q&A sessions, open conversations represent instances in which Ambassadors and followers share a similar status as dialogue cannot take place without the participation of both. Finally, social media is based on an architecture of participation. The greater the ability to participate and shape online events, the greater the satisfaction SNS followers experience. By using open conversations, Norway’s MFA enables its followers to shape their meetings with Norwegian diplomats.
By adopting an open and dialogic form of engagement, Norway’s MFA is able to meet its followers’ expectations. This is of paramount importance as studies have shown that meeting such expectations may lead to brand loyalty. In the world of digital diplomacy, this refers to followers’ willingness to continuously visit an MFA’s social media sites and to regard MFA content as a credible source of information.
In addition, some studies have suggested that satisfaction from online engagement leads to follower advocacy. As advocates, MFA followers may share the ministry’s content with their online contacts and even create their own content in order to aid an MFA. Such advocacy is incredibly beneficial to MFAs as people may pay more attention to foreign policy messages circulated by their online friends than to those disseminated by MFAs which are sometimes regarded propaganda machines. Moreover, MFA advocates may enable MFAs to achieve the goals of public diplomacy, digital diplomacy and nation branding.
When followers’ expectations of engagement are not met they often leave SNS profiles without ever bothering to return thus reducing an MFAs ability to create a global online following. Moreover, disappointed followers may become disillusioned with the idea of digital diplomacy and lose faith in MFAs altogether. Thus, Issue-specific engagement models, that fail to meet follower expectations, may actually be detrimental to an MFA’s digital diplomacy goals.
Norway’s new VAT program represents a much warranted change in MFA engagement models. It is however important to note that other MFAs have also begun to make changes to the manner in which they engage with followers. On the 12th of February, the US State Department held a Q&A session with its spokesperson Jen Psaki. This session was open and not limited in scope. SNS users asked questions regarding a wide array of issues such as climate change, US-Taliban relations and US aid to civilians in South Sudan.
It is therefore possible that more and more MFAs are undergoing a conceptual shift and adopting new, open, models of engagement. And it is through such models that MFAs may begin to realize the potential of online engagement as a tool for the creation of meaningful and long lasting relationships with global audiences.