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Social media has transformed how we operate in times of crisis

We have asked several foreign ministries to answer some questions about their #DigitalDiplomacy. Here’s a guest post from the Foreign Ministry of Iceland.


The year is 2013, it’s early spring and we at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are about to welcome Carl Bildt to Iceland. Our Foreign Minister has bought him a traditional Icelandic wool sweater and a lot of thought has gone into finding the right fit, the right colours and the right pattern. We take our wool sweaters very seriously.

But we had not given his virtual welcome as much of a thought, even though he was a diplomatic Twitter celebrity, as he was one of the first ones to truly embrace the medium when it came to dialogue between international actors. We had not stepped into the Twitterworld, keeping ourselves busy instead with keeping afloat on Iceland’s preferred social medium, Facebook. But when Bildt tweeted from the plane, saying he was looking forward to his visit to Iceland, we thought; this is the best chance we get to take off on Twitter with a bang. So off we went, without really asking anyone for permission. We were airborne! With considerable more effort put into preparing the sweater than into our invasion into Twittersphere, but hey, you only really learn by doing!

Fast forward to 2016. By now we believe we are doing a pretty good job at tweeting. Being a small state, with only about 330,000 inhabitants, we are never going to be contenders in the most followed category or the ones with the most engagement in the Twiplomacy study. That’s ok though, we’ve come to terms with our size. But that doesn’t mean that we are not playing. We just have to be creative and work with what we have. For the last few studies we have scored high when it comes to mutual connections and been in the top ten of the best-connected world leaders.

94% of our audience on Twitter is based outside Iceland and therefore our tweets are mostly in English. Twitter is therefore our preferred social media platform when we need to get our message across borders.

The ability to connect with other Ministries, Ministers and international organisations directly (and openly) is something that we, again being small and tiny and all that, welcome greatly and will continue to use in all our communication and information related work.

And it’s pretty fun, right.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened its Facebook page back in 2010 and the reason behind that still rings true today, we need to be present where the conversation is taking place. Iceland has one of the highest ratings worldwide when in comes to percentage of the population that is on Facebook. According to Gallup Iceland, the number was a whopping 89% for those 18 years and older. So, if we want to speak to our home audience, we know where to find them.

Facebook is the spine of our social media outreach in Iceland and we currently have two MFA pages, one in Icelandic and the other in English, and in addition all but one of our diplomatic missions now use Facebook as a means to connect with people, home and away. It has also proven the perfect medium to reach our diaspora and those travelling, both with routine information regarding consular services and especially in times of crisis.

Here at the mothership we welcome the opportunity to show a side to us that is different from the view people get from the traditional media, or, if I’m being honest, to finally show A side. We who live and breathe in the world of diplomacy know how clandestine our operations have been in the past. We are more than press releases, bilateral agreements and trade discussions, important as they might be. We can now, thanks to social media, show the more personal angle of what we do, the behind the curtains view and small things that we, like any other workplace, enjoy. It gives the institution a human touch, and in our experience, that agrees with our audience.

Social media has transformed how we operate in times of crisis. It is by far the most valuable tool when it comes to both locating and communicating with our citizens who find themselves in a crisis abroad, and with their loved ones at home.

Recent terrorist attacks in Brussels are a good example. A lot of Icelanders work in the European Quarter where the second bomb exploded. What usually happens in situations like that is that the mobile system crashes and it is impossible for people to reach their friends and family to let them know that they are either safe or in need of help. Before social media, we would set up call centres here in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for people that can’t reach their loved ones. We register each person that is unaccounted for and then we try to locate him or her. Now, we are looking at a very different landscape. 3G and Wi-Fi are usually working so people can let others know on social media that they are ok. And while a phone call is only between two persons, a Facebook post is there for all your friends to see.

Facebook Safety Check is a great addition and has proven very helpful in our emergency situations. But does that mean that we become irrelevant? Not at all. We still have a huge information role to play, and again, social media is your friend. Through our social media channels and those of the Minister and our Embassy in Brussels we were able to communicate to a larger audience in real time regarding emergency responses, safety measures and transportation. We saw higher numbers in engagement and reach than usually and our Embassy gained a considerable amount of followers. So people were actually coming directly to us regarding official information on what was happening in Brussels and what to do. And we were relieved that we were present, to both talk and to listen.

We are happy that we took the leap a few years back into social media world. It has given us a chance to listen, to step in a discussion, to answer and explain, everything from how to leave a country during civil unrest, to explaining why we are maintaining a diplomatic service in the first place (have you guys never heard of Skype?)

And for Carl Bildt? He’s still following us. Are you?

By Þurý Björk Björgvinsdóttir (@thurybjork), Specialist, Department for Information, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland (@MFAIceland)

This content is not being updated and may contain out of date information

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