Over the past year, much has been written about Russian digital diplomacy. While some have argued that Russia uses social media for propaganda, analysis has shown that the Russian MFA is one of the most active and dominant foreign ministries on twitter. Moreover, the Russian MFA is one of the most central ministries among the online diplomatic milieu.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview the press attaché at the Russian embassy in London and learn first-hand about its social media activities. I was also able to learn more about the Russian digital diplomacy model including its work alongside embassies, training of diplomats and evaluation of digital diplomacy activity.
Question: Who are you trying to reach through social media? Other embassies? The national press? The local population?
We believe that social media is now as important as traditional media. We can reach as many people through twitter as we can with a letter to the Financial Times. So we are definitely targeting and reaching out to the general public. Our Russian language twitter channel is aimed at Russian speaking audiences, whether it is the diaspora in the UK or Russians back home. Our English language twitter channels are targeted at various audiences including the press and the general public.
Question: Do you know who your audience base on twitter actually is? Do you analyse your audience?
Yes. The embassy’s English twitter account has 295 verified followers while the Ambassador’s account has 300 verified followers. Among these are members of Parliament, members of the European Parliament, representatives from local authorities, members of the press such as BBC journalists and the London papers. We also attract correspondents to Moscow and representatives from other countries. We follow other embassies on twitter and they also follow us in return.
Interestingly, 39% of our English twitter followers live in UK, 15% live in the US and 4% in Russia. So our social media presence is really centred on the UK. Our followers’ interests are business, news and politics. So we know the interests of our followers and we tailor content to these interests. Also, these demographics suggest that we are able to attract the audience base we define as important to our work.
Question: You stated that you follow other embassies to London and that they follow you. Would you say that twitter is now a tool for gathering information on the foreign policies of other countries?
Yes, it is a new tool to learn more about the opinions of other countries. But it is also a tool to perfect your social media skills. We see what other embassies do online and sometimes we will follow suit. Other times, embassies will see our tactics on social media and they will adopt these tactics. There is a Diplomatic Press Attaches Association in London which meets regularly to discuss social media diplomacy.
Question: Perhaps the greatest difference between TV mediated diplomacy and twitter mediated diplomacy is direct contact with audiences. Do you think it’s important to respond to what your followers write on social media?
Yes. It is very important and we often do it. In most cases we also try to respond to criticism. Our duty is to clarify Russia’s position on various issues. Many times people will criticise Russia not because of our policies but because they don’t know what our policy is. So we are able to use social media to clarify our position and have the audience judge our policies in a more informed manner.
Question: How do you evaluate social media activity? What parameters do you use?
We believe that the most important parameter is the general reach of the content. So number of overall followers is very important.
Question: What other platforms is the embassy active on?
We currently have 3 accounts on twitter (two in English and one in Russian), a Facebook account and accounts on YouTube, Flickr, SlideShare and Storify. The latter are subsidiary tools as twitter is the main platform we use.
However, we have recently begun using Periscope which has proven very popular. We have 200 people watching our content simultaneously and we stream exhibitions, speeches at receptions and other events we host at the embassy. We find that Periscope attracts more followers than YouTube so it is becoming an important platform for us.
Question: Do you post the same content on Facebook as you do on twitter?
We have a different demographic on Facebook so we share different content. On Facebook, 46% of our “Friends” are in the UK, half of them in London. Their main interests are culture so we write more about cultural events and news relating to Russian culture. This year, for instance, is the Russia-UK Year of language and literature so we will be posting a lot of content on upcoming cultural events.
Question: Different MFAs seem to employ different models for working alongside their embassies. How does your embassy work with the MFA in Moscow? Do you send them reports on comments you receive on social media? Do you send them regular analyses of your social media presence?
Monitoring comments on social media is important as it helps us to understand public opinion. For instance, as the Russian air campaign in Syria began we had a storm of comments and letters in support of Russia’s actions. These were comments from regular British people. So of course we told the MFA about it. Such reporting is an integral part of a diplomatic mission’s duties.
Nowadays, all Russian embassies are expected to be active on social media networks that are popular in their host country. For instance, the Russian embassy to China is active on Weibo and not twitter. There is a unit inside the MFA’s Department of Information and Press that works alongside embassies on social media issues.
Question: Given that press attaché’s are now in charge of social media, has the role of the press attaché changed significantly over the last 10 years?
It has changed a lot. Social media requires a special style of writing and communicating. It’s very different from traditional media. It also changes from one country to another. So it’s important to learn how social media works and to be active on it. It is an additional work load for the press attaché.
Question: Did you receive special training? Does the MFA train diplomats in social media?
My generation did not get such training. The assumption was (and is) that every diplomat is a “universal soldier” so he or she should be able to explain polices and interact with different audiences on different platforms and perform consular, economic or other duties. However, today the Russian MFA Diplomatic Academy offers special courses for press secretaries that include social media.
Question: What do you think is the most novel aspect of your embassy’s digital diplomacy model?
Most likely the diplomatic club. The diplomatic club is an app, the users of which allow us to publish tweets through their accounts once a week. So our content is automatically shared by them. It dramatically increases our online reach and facilitates discussion. So really it’s a force multiplier. Once a year we also invite all members of the diplomatic club to an event at the embassy. We also send them a newsletter and arrange prize draws so as to create a cloes virtual community.
Question: Over the past year, many people have claimed that while some countries use social media for digital diplomacy, Russia uses it for propaganda. Do you agree?
If you define propaganda as lying, then I disagree. We never publish content online before it is verified, by us or the MFA. We only use our accounts to publish relevant and accurate information. People can obviously have different interpretations of facts. Russia has a position on Syria, and the UK has another position and Saudi Arabia has another position.
Question: Finally, do you think digital diplomacy is new tool for achieving traditional diplomatic goals or a new form of diplomacy?
In 1841, when Lord Palmerston received his first overseas cable, he said that diplomacy was dead. We now know that diplomacy did not die. Rather, diplomacy adopted new tools to be more efficient and diplomats used new tools to better perform their duties.
However, with mass communication the duties of diplomats and embassies changed. Since the late 19th century international summits became a regular occurrence and world leaders directly talked to one another. Today, they talk to one another all the time. So the role of diplomats has changed and today we see the rise of public diplomacy. In an age when leaders talk to one another constantly, an embassy can allocate more resources to public diplomacy.
Yet this too is not completely new. In 1791 there was a serious proposal in the British parliament to go to war with Russia following its victory against the Turkish Empire. The Russian ambassador, and the Russian priest, to London began a campaign against such a war that included publishing newspaper articles and the printing and distributing of pamphlets. They also attended meetings at local councils in order to gauge public opinion and influence people’s support of the war. So this was a successful public diplomacy campaign conducted in the 18th century long before twitter.
So today diplomacy has new tools but its essence is not different.
The Russian embassy’s online presence seems to be targeted at three core audiences: the press, the diplomatic community in London and the British public. The embassy’s unique digital diplomacy model enables it to extend its online reach through tweeting from followers’ accounts. This may enable the embassy to be more effective online as its messages emanate from regular users rather than government accounts that may be seen as Twipoganda.
Moreover, the embassy seems to closely monitor its audience base and tailor social media content to followers’ interests. Likewise, each social media platform is used to promote different content, another form of tailoring. Finally, the embassy seems to regard social media as an integral part of the practice of diplomacy in the 21st century.