New trends in public diplomacy coalesce around new social media that connect governments with international publics. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as well as SMS (Short Message Service, also know as texting) and video conferencing are all becoming daily communication tools for people to connect with one another as well as to stay updated on current events and issues of interest. To this end, the United States and the United Kingdom have each created new departments assigned to aid government initiatives and strengthen embassy activities in new media engagement. Currently being coined “digital diplomacy,” these offices provide best practices, case studies, social media guides or training sessions, and metric measurements to evaluate success.

In the United States, the Office for Innovative Engagement, led by William May, has worked with posts to launch initiatives that make sense for each particular region.  Noting how communication strategies have changed with new media, May said: “We are finding much of our communication is local, and by that I no longer mean just geographic, but it’s driven by those who share local interests.” The State Department is also working to match communication strategies to platforms most widely adopted in the region, which in many places is mobile communication.

Case studies from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office Digital Diplomacy Initiative include examples of ambassadors using blogs and Twitter, consulates connecting with ex-patriots on Facebook, webcasts and Skype calls to bridge geographic divides and SMS to distribute information quickly during consular crises. As the head of engagement for digital diplomacy Stephen Hale admits that his work is “as much about culture change as it is about technology.”

Along with these two governments, Israel has been digitally participating and Turkey[1] recently announced plans to officially engage in this space as well. The number of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube government-sponsored pages is quickly multiplying, not to mention the countless individual diplomats who engage on behalf of their governments.

While this engagement seems to be rapidly growing, it has not been without some concern.  In a recent report from the Heritage Foundation[2], Helle C. Dale noted the challenge governments face when interfacing in sites where it is undesirable for government to control media message and yet must deal with threats from the lack of regulation. “Lack of regulation incurs serious risk for agencies involved in sensitive areas, such as defense and diplomacy. For regulation within the government to be effective the government must establish policy guidelines… without destroying the intimate feel of social networking.”

Robin Brown[3] recently spoke at the International Studies Association Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, and presented a new model for public diplomacy based less on the idea of communication as a platform for public diplomacy and more on social networks as the underlying discourse. Based on this model, it would be no surprise that as social networks continue to rise, the way governments view and interact with online social networks will also evolve from yet another broadcast medium to relationship-based dialogues; making online social networks tremendously powerful and essential in public diplomacy.

Tori Horton is currently an adjunct communications faculty member at Weber State University. She earned a Master’s Degree in Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California (USC). Recently Horton worked as Project Manager for a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation at USC exploring virtual worlds and online communication. Horton focused on using these worlds as a natural platform for collaboration through global communication and cross-cultural interaction. She has been involved in virtual world exploration since 2005.

[1] BBC Worldwide Monitoring. “Turkey to launch ‘public diplomacy’ on Internet social networks .“ December 3, 2009

[2] Dale, Helle C. “Public Diplomacy 2.0: Where the U.S. Government Meets ‘New Media.’” Backgrounder Heritage Foundation No 2346. December 8, 2009.

[3] Brown, Robin. “Diplomacy, Public Diplomacy and Social Networks.” Paper prepared for the International Studies Association Convention. February 2010, New Orleans.