Today the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (ie. my place of work) hosted an event on modern diplomacy in the age of social media. The three part presentation was aimed at showcasing how the department has evolved and where it is headed in terms of digital diplomacy. The event featured a panel discussion with Canadian diplomats abroad, a Q&A with representatives from the Canadian branches of Twitter, Google and Facebook, and finally a discussion with Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird and Sweden's former foreign minister Carl Bildt, which was moderated by Paul Wells of Maclean's magazine.

In the presentation, it was noted that the department has an impressive 400-plus twitter accounts around the globe for various missions and branches. Social media is becoming a useful tool in advocacy which is experiencing a campaign-style shift as the tools become more and more integrated in our work place. It is also being used to send strong messages on consular issues and foreign policy.

By making better use of social media, missions abroad can tie all their diplomatic efforts to he department and approach consular situations in a way far removed from the old instructions.

And, as we progress, we are addressing the challenge of being social on social media - governments are quick to jump on the bandwagon but slow to implement the "social" aspect - which is the most integral part of the model.

In the video/panel discussion with diplomats at the Canadian embassies in Venezuela, Tunisia, Washington and the EU in Brussels, as well as with a social media expert from the British High Commission in Ottawa, the discussion turned to the openness that social media has created for these missions and how it is demystifying the work that diplomats do, as well as amplifying.

In a world where bureaucrats would never speak publicly without approval, they are now encouraged and expected to have a voice and share their thoughts on social media platforms. The discussion turned to caution - as folks who represent Canada and Canadians abroad, they warned that there are a few rules to follow: Don't embarrass yourself; Don't embarrass the government; Don't be untrue; Don't be boring.

They agreed that social media needs to permeate everyday in everyone's job, which was a common theme throughout the day: social media has to become integrated in the job, just like picking up the phone or shooting out an email.

In the Q&A with the reps from TwitterGoogle and Facebook, the discussion began with the age of citizen jouralism and the changing landscape of the role of authority. With the immediacy of social media (including video platforms like YouTube), there is an ability now more than ever to criticize and share opinions. This is a powerful way to take control of the news. Not only do you have your soapbox but you also have these platforms that intertwine to amplify your message to the larger audience.

The social media reps also discussed the changing trends in mobile devices which add to the immediacy, and said they hope that social media will be so well integrated in the public service that events like today's won't be necessary in a few years' time.

Last but not least, in the talk with Paul Wells, Carl Bildt, who is a social media star in Sweden, talked about the order he gave when he was the foreign minister, for all Swedish embassies to set up Twitter accounts. He said even the embassy in Pyongyang has an account, even though no one followed it at the time, except himself. This was his method of remaining abreast on all the happenings in his embassies around the world.

John Baird talked about the empowerment that social media has instilled. Instead of drafting long statements or news releases which have to run through a chain of approvals, or, instead of announcing something in a scrum for journalists to interpret in their own words, he now has the freedom to make announcement on Twitter in his own words. He called it a liberating experience.

The minister admitted that mistakes happen along the way, just like they do in any other aspect of life or work, but as long as they're honest mistakes, you can move forward unscathed. "You can't go and call President X a jerk," he cautioned. Although Carl Bildt admitted that he could because he's not longer a politician.

One of the last things Minister Baird said in this talk was that the public service cannot be averse to risk, and I think it's safe to say that the entity, or at least this department, is embracing social media and a new form of diplomacy that enables an authentic conversation with a participating audience. It's a pretty impressive time.

(Second blog post for "Developing a Social Media Strategy")

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