The practice of digital diplomacy has altered considerably since its inception in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Early digital diplomacy initiatives focused on using virtual platforms to overcome the limitations of traditional diplomacy. For instance, in 2008 Sweden launched the world’s first virtual Embassy in the online world of Second Life. This Embassy was meant to serve as a global Embassy accessible to anyone with a computer connection. The offline limitations of time and space, which mandate that Embassies are physical structures located in capitals, were thus rendered meaningless. A few years later, America launched its virtual Embassy to Tehran meant to facilitate ties between US diplomats and Iranian internet users. This virtual Embassy was meant to overcome the lack of a physical ties as America has no Embassy in Iran.
Since then, digital diplomacy has become almost synonymous with social media as diplomats, Embassies and Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) have all migrated to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and more. It is now estimated that 90% of UN member states have established a social media presence with diplomats using social media to narrate state action, manage their nation’s image, respond to crises and rally support for their foreign policies.
When focusing on diplomats’ use of social media it is important to distinguish between targeted and tailored communications. Targeted messages are meant to reach a wide and diverse public. They are specifically designed to appeal to a large digital public irrespective of the public’s varying demographics such as age, occupation, nationality or socio-economic background. The message “don’t drink and drive” is an example of targeted communications as it is applicable to all drivers on the road regardless of their age or experience.
Tailored communications, on the other hand, consist of messages that are meant to resonate with a specific segment of the public. Tailored messages are designed with a specific segment in mind and would thus be irrelevant to the general public. Tailored messages take note of the segment’s language, habits, beliefs and worldviews. Such is the case with a message aimed at 18 year old drivers that warns them of the risk of driving after consuming alcohol. The message would use terms used by teens and even reference teen culture, making it irrelevant to older drives.
MFAs use social media to deliver targeted messages. An MFA’s Twitter account is used to communicate with a diverse public including social media users from across the world, journalists, news outlets, other diplomatic institutions and even the national citizenry. Embassies, on the other hand. can use social media to deliver tailored messages aimed at a local public and that consider a host of variables including bi-lateral ties, shared history, local norms and values, local interests and even local politics. Some MFAs routinely practice tailoring. For instance, the Israeli Embassy in Sweden, and the Israeli Embassy in Kenya, publish very different tweets in terms of content, style and even visuals. The reason being that Israel has very different relations with Sweden and Kenya while the political and social conditions in both countries also vary greatly.
What is central about tailoring is that it enables diplomats to craft messages that resonate with a local public. Communication studies have found that tailored messages are more likely to influence individuals’ worldviews, beliefs and opinions as tailored messages consider the unique attributes of individuals.
One MFAs currently practicing both targeted and tailored communications is Ukraine’s foreign ministry. MFA tweets are meant for wide circulation and aim to reach a wide and diverse public. Targeted tweets include updates from Ukrainian officials, real-time narration of Ukraine’s militray actions, updates on diplomatic efforts to secure additional weapons for Ukraine and even memes which, by nature, are meant to appeal to large audiences as they draw on global popular culture. Such is the case with memes labeling President Zelenskyy “Captain Ukraine”.
Yet Ukraine’s Ambassador to the US has been practicing tailored communications. Many of the tweets she had published in recent months are tailored to the American public. The Ambassador’s tailoring takes three forms. First, she invokes American symbols and American history. Such is the case with the first tweet below in which the American anthem is used to draw attention to Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive. In the second tweet the Ambassador celebrates the 235th anniversary of the American constitution, while adding that what binds the US and Ukraine are norms and values, namely the protection of freedom and democracy in the face of tyranny.
Second, the Ukrainian Ambassador takes note of important American commemorations. Such is the case with the tweet below published on the American National Purple Heart Day, a day that honors the soldiers who were wounded or killed in service. The Ambassadors leveraged this commemoration to draw attention to the price paid by Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian aggression.
Finally, the Ambassador leverages national holidays to craft tailored messages. A tweet published on the 4th of July, American Independence Day, stated that Ukraine and the US were united by their love of democracy, and their willingness to defend it. This verbal message was also represented visually as the American flag was tied to the Ukrainian flag. What is striking about this visual is that both flags are made up of similar individuals, amplifying the message that Ukrainians are similar to Americans and that both share a devotion to freedom and democracy.
The Ambassador’s tweets are a text-book example of how diplomats can use social media to tailor their online messages. The aforementioned tweets would mean little to British, French or Israeli Twitter users. But they would be meaningful to American Twitter users. Through her tweets, Ukraine’s Ambassador crafts a sophisticated yet simple message- the War in Ukraine matters to Americans. Like Americans, Ukrainians value freedom and democracy. Like Americans, Ukrainians are willing to fight for freedom and democracy. And like Americans, Ukrainians are dying to defend freedom and democracy. Given that tailored messages are more likely to influence views, opinions and beliefs, the Ukrainian Ambassador may be able to galvanize American Twitter users and secure continued American support for Ukraine. Both online and offline.