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APRIL 28, 2015

The European External Action Service and Digital Diplomacy

We have asked several foreign ministries to answer some questions about their #DigitalDiplomacy. Here’s a guest post from the European External Action Service.


“Twitter has proven to be a revolutionary social network even in politics. It is an extraordinary channel of diplomacy and of communication. That’s why with Michael Mann and the Strategic Communications Division, we have been working, since the very beginning of my mandate, on making Twitter one of the fundamental tools of our diplomacy.”

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the
EU for Foreign Affairs and Security
Policy/Vice President of the European Commission.

In the short lifetime of the European External Action Service, social media – or perhaps I should say Digital Diplomacy – have come to play an absolutely crucial part in our communication strategy and hence our day-to-day engagement online. 

From relatively humble beginnings on Twitter, our reach has grown exponentially and at an even greater pace since the beginning of the mandate of the new EU High Representative and Vice President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini.

She recognises the importance of team work in successful Digital Diplomacy, the need to break down the silos and insist that all staff contribute the raw materials, rather than leaving communication as an afterthought.

Inspired – and trusted – from above, we have been able to undertake a major push, reinforcing our Digital Diplomacy Strategy for HQ and EU Delegations, providing pre-posting training for all new Ambassadors and working closely with the other EU bodies, something which is not always a given.

Perhaps our greatest strength lies in Federica Mogherini’s active involvement on Twitter. Unlike some politicians, the HR/VP personally tweets on @FedericaMog, as does her media adviser Sabrina Bellosi. Her engagement on Twitter gives us a focal point around which we can anchor EEAS Digital Diplomacy Strategy, and keep expanding our social media footprint globally.

The numbers speak for themselves: Federica Mogherini has 123,000 followers, an increase of more than 60% percent since the 1st of November 2014, and the central account of the Service @eu_eeas is now reaching over 94,000.

And all this – whisper it – with a full-time social media team at HQ of two people, ably supported by other members of our Strategic Communications team, who bring together a range of skills to help us achieve our goals and constantly evolve.

This intrepid group helps to run the EEAS Twitter and Facebook accounts, plus the Twitter accounts for two senior managers, two spokespersons and the head of StratComms, as well as FlickrInstagram and YouTube.

In reality, our success goes far beyond the Brussels beltway, thanks to a growing band of enthusiastic well trained colleagues in EU Delegations around the world. Social media engagement through this invaluable network has proved paramount in strengthening EEAS Digital Diplomacy efforts, considerably expanding our reach to new audiences.

Today, some 96 Delegations are engaging on social media with local audiences, of which 59 are active on Twitter and supported by 33 of our Ambassadors tweeting in a professional capacity.

We have made exceptional progress, but it would be wrong to imagine that we have solved the conundrum of how to best use these incredible communication tools. There is still much to do.

For a start, there is an inherent contradiction in digital diplomacy: social media are about transparency, speed and information sharing. Traditional diplomacy is often about privacy, long-term planning, incremental steps and moderation. Tweets are 140 characters, while diplomats traditionally like to use two words where one will often suffice. These two worlds might easily collide – our challenge is how to avoid that collision or even to reconcile the two. In this, it was vital to de-mystify and remove some of the fear certain colleagues felt about Twitter. 

We need to encourage our Delegations to innovate and act autonomously, but at the same time ensure that the key messages developed at HQ are properly communicated on the ground.

As in all things, there is no substitute for thorough training of staff in how to use these tools which are so powerful, but can miss their target if the inherent potential of the medium is not understood.

The choice of language, for instance, proved so vital to a successful social media strategy. There is little point in reaching out to the Arab world in anything other than Arabic. Tweeting on the Iran talks in Farsi brought a huge number of new followers to our accounts.

Engaging on social media in local languages has now become a best practice among all our Delegations, not least our Delegations in Kiev and Moscow, which have stepped up their social media outreach since the outbreak of the crisis.

Likewise, we are still to an extent feeling our way. Do our new strategies work? How do we ensure that the various accounts we run are sufficiently distinct, add value and support the central voice of the HR/VP? 

As our following grows, we also need to understand and assess whether we are reaching the right people, and what we can do better to attract key audiences and truly engage with them in a two-way conversation.

Though these challenges might remain, the list of EEAS social media success stories continues to grow.

The recent #IranTalks in Lausanne are an example of how the EEAS was able to use the power of digital diplomacy. As these negotiations rapidly hit the Twittersphere at their relaunch in 2012, it created an ecosystem favourable to instant reporting, well understood by key stakeholders.

That accurate reporting on the marathon talks were accessible to the outside world was thanks almost exclusively to various trustworthy sources on Twitter, overcoming the noise of disinformation.

The underlying dynamic was fascinating and EEAS Digital Diplomacy was here again at play. While the press pushed for leaks, the negotiators on all sides sought to let the world know what was happening without undermining what was going on behind closed doors. 

EEAS accounts continued to inform audiences on the key moments during the long days and nights in Lausanne, and provided attractive behind-the-scenes photos, while carefully reflecting the HR/VP’s role as facilitator of the talks.

EEAS channels kept the media and the public informed, through thoughtfully chosen tweets and retweets, without risking the kind of interference which could derail the entire process. When the deal was done, the HR/VP broke the news through her account, resulting in our most successful tweets ever.

So when all is said and done, what wisdom does the EEAS have to share with other ministries who would like to engage in the social media?

Our main strength lies in having the luxury of a senior and active voice around which we can construct our strategy, and a boss who supports us and empowers us to do our work. Much of our success is thanks to the time we have put into developing a detailed strategy and strengthening the links between HQ and our outposts around the world – encouraging outreach on the ground while keeping hold of the messages.

As Head of Strategic Communications since 2011, I find myself very privileged to work under the mandate of Federica Mogherini, whose leadership and enthusiasm for digital communication offers EEAS Digital Diplomacy a true opportunity to reach its full potential.

This is one of the most exciting projects for myself to push forward with the help of the EEAS StratComms.

By Michael Mann (@MichaelMannEU), Head of Strategic Communications, European External Action Service (@eu_eeas)

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

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