Effective Government Communication During Covid19: What Governments Can Learn from Diplomats

A recent article in Nature, titled “Toward effective government communication strategies in the era of COVID-19“, outlines communications policies that may help governments face the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors layout 9 guiding principles for “effective” government communication, including clarity, honesty and empathy. It is interesting that most of these principles are relevant to digital diplomacy, and especially to the use of social media in diplomacy. In this post I examine 5 communication strategies listed in the Nature article, while reflecting on how diplomats employ these strategies on social media. As this post suggests, governments can, and should learn from diplomats’ expertise in using social media. Over the past decade and a half diplomats have undergone a “crash course” in using social media. Many diplomats are now social media experts and as this post demonstrates, they already employ the “effective government communication strategies” outlined in nature.  

1.       Engage in clear communication

The issue of clarity is of great importance to the practice of digital diplomacy given that diplomats use social media to communicate with both their peers and policy experts as well as the general “public”. Leveraging social media towards diplomatic ends thus requires that diplomats avoid professional jargon and vague comments. In other words, on social media diplomats must use layman’s terms as opposed to official terminology or “DiploSpeak”.

One of the first MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs) to realize this was the German MFA which, during the 2014 Crimean Crisis, used Twitter to outline the G7’s response to Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine. The tweet, shown below, clearly stated that the G7 jointly called on Russia to de-escalate tensions in Crimea. Moreover, the tweets stated that the G7 would also oppose any referendum on the future of Crimea. The US Ambassador to the UN published an equally “clear” message, albeit a more forceful one, rejecting a referendum that was nothing but a Russian charade.  

Of course diplomats are also clear spoken when dealing with routine diplomatic functions such as enhancing bi-lateral ties. The two tweets below, published by the UK Foreign Office and the UAE’s Ambassador to Israel clearly articulate diplomats’ goals and plainly describe ties between states without resorting to official or ambiguous language.

2.       Strive for maximum credibility

On social media, credibility is born out of transparency. The age of social media is also the age of total transparency as users are asked to share their success and failures, promotion and demotions, marriages and divorces. Studies show that the more personal a tweet or Post, the more a user bares his/her soul, the more Likes and Shares they will garner. It is through Likes and Shares that users adopt the norm of absolute transparency sharing Selfies from their high-school graduation and miscarriages.

Within the realm of diplomacy, diplomats increasingly share images from “behind the scenes” of diplomacy. By removing the veil of secrecy that has traditionally shrouded diplomacy, diplomats supposedly embrace the norms of the digital age while allowing publics to “witness” diplomacy in action. Most recently, various UN Missions published their efforts to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council. UN Missions from various countries posted images of the election process, as well as images of celebrations. Two such tweets can be seen below, one published by Denmark’s Ambassador to the UN and another by Bhutan’s Ambassador.  

Scholars have argued that social media facilitates the veneer of transparency and that diplomacy is not truly “open” or “transparent”. Indeed, digital publics are left out of most negotiating rooms and are only informed of diplomatic agreements once they have been signed. While this argument has merit, diplomacy has become more open over the past decade. Two notable examples are the 2015 Iran Deal, which was published online, and the Indian MFA’s smartphone application that allows users to read bi-lateral accords signed between India and other states.

Covid-19 has pushed the envelope further as users are now party to conference calls between world leaders. Consider the tweet below offering Twitter users a seat at the table opposite the leaders of the UK and New Zealand.  

3.       Communicate with empathy

Emotions are central to online communications. Though many believe that hate travels further, and faster online, some studies suggest that within the realm of diplomacy hope travels further than hate. The reason being that publics expect diplomats to build bridges rather than walls or use carrots rather than sticks. Indeed, publics view diplomats as peacemakers and those trusted with ensuring the tranquility of international affairs. The fact that war is as central to diplomacy as an Embassy is irrelevant given that diplomats must tailor their communications to public expectations.

Communicating empathy raises a question that many MFAs have faced- should high level diplomats operate personal or professional accounts? Professional accounts (i.e., German Ambassador in London), passed from one Ambassador to the next offer an advantage as each Ambassador receives a substantial online following when taking his post. Personal accounts, however, are more effective when communicating emotions. This is because social media users can more easily relate to another user as opposed to Embassy or MFA accounts that are run by an amorphous digital team.

Some MFAs have taken the middle road by creating professional accounts that bear the image and name of a specific Ambassador, and that strike a more conversational tone. For instance, Sweden’s Ambassador to Israel has just recently launched a new account that will be inherited by his successor. Yet the Swedish Ambassador uses this account in a personal way that allows him to communicate emotions and empathy. The tweet below, for instance, was published by the Ambassador when visiting Israel’s Holocaust Museum. Another example was recently published by the UK foreign minister when visiting the site of a 2018 terrorist attack in India. Both these tweets communicate empathy more effectively then a message published by a ministry or Embassy.  

4.       Communicate with openness, frankness, and honesty

Frankness and honesty do not come naturally to diplomats. As Churchill famously commented “A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in a way that you actually look forward to the journey”. That said, diplomats do employ frankness when dealing with sensitive issues, or when dealing with tensions between states. Consider the two tweets below published by the EU and UK foreign ministers upon meeting Russia’s foreign minister.

Both the EU and the UK have strained relations with Russia due to the alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, the alleged Russian nerve agent attack in Salisbury or Russia’s alleged use of disinformation to heighten anti-EU sentiments in Europe.  Yet in both cases, the foreign ministers tweeted that though they have disputes with Russia, they nonetheless wish to engage with Russia on matters of shared concern. Both these tweets are honest as they do not try to mask current tension with Russia.

At the same time, both ministers avoided the temptation of using bluntness as a tool for gaining attention on social media. Something often done by Russian Embassies as can be seen below. 

5.       Be proactive in combating misinformation

The issue of combating misinformation has been a priority for diplomats and MFAs across the world for some time. Over the past few years alone the UK Foreign Office has launched a big data unit tasked with identifying and neutralizing fake social media accounts; the Lithuanian MFA has created monitoring units tasked with identifying and countering Russian disinformation campaigns while the Israeli MFA has written its own algorithm to help combat anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook. Other nations, such as Denmark, have placed an emphasis on teaching digital literacy and encouraging citizens to verify the information they read online. Others, such as Latvia, are active in UN forums where they are drafting a declaration of digital rights that includes an individual’s right to access accurate and verifiable information.

Yet here again Covid-19 has forced a new reality as pandemic related disinformation harms national vaccination efforts while eroding trust in government and in academia. Some have argued that Russia is mounting a two-pronged digital campaign and that official Russian social media accounts tout the benefits of the Russian Sputnik vaccine while unofficial accounts are used to attack and reduce public faith in Western vaccines. Whether this is true or not, what is certain is that in the age of Covid-19, misinformation has transitioned from a potential national threat to a national security threat. It is quite possible that in the near future, the task of combating misinformation will increasingly be taken up by national defense agencies and not by diplomats.  

To summarize, governments looking to master effective communication strategies during the pandemic need not turn to Nature magazine. They need only converse with their diplomatic corps.

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