Tweet Me to Your Leader: How the World's Big Shots Use Social Media


They're using their feeds, they have lots of followers, but most of them don't really know what they're doing -- yet.

RTR37PVY-615.jpgSouth Korean President Lee Myung Bak films the media on a mobile phone before photo with other leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. (Reuters)

Call it Twiplomacy, Facebook diplomacy, weiplomacy, or simply digital diplomacy, the use of social networks has become an integral part of government communication. The new tools of the "21st Century Statecraft" -- a term coined by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- are rapidly replacing fax and telex, and are becoming as important for government leaders, ministers, and diplomats as the telephone, email, and diplomatic cables. In the near future, no one will be able to become a leader without digital followers, and no diplomat will be well-positioned to represent his or her country if he or she does not personally engage on social networks. And it is not the size of the followership that matters, but the quality of the conversations.

The year 2012 has seen a marked increase in the use of social media -- especially Twitter and Facebook -- by heads of state and government, ministers, and diplomats. The entire governments of Chile and Mexico, and their ministers, are on Twitter. The most recent world leaders to join the social network are E.U. Commission President José Manuel Barroso (@BarrosoEU) and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (@David_Cameron), who signed up on October 6, 2012, immediately prior to the U.K. Conservative Party Conference. Neither of them are tweeting personally. David Cameron once said in a radio interview, "The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it -- too many twits might make a twat."

Twitter is probably one of the easiest social-media tools to use in government communication. It allows the broadcast of short, 140-character messages to a large audience, well beyond any country's borders. Despite receiving massive abuse in the first hours of his foray into the Twitterverse, David Cameron's team kept his 120,000 followers abreast of his activity during the party conference. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez used Twitter to rally his 3.6 million followers and secure re-election on October 7, 2012. Twitter helped Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves debunk a negative news story about his country in the New York Times, and Rwandan Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi uses it to converse directly with his followers every Friday.

A senior leader of an international organization once argued that he couldn't possibly express his thoughts in only 140 characters. On the contrary, the 140-character limitations of Twitter help to focus the message. Like it or not, we live in an era of sound bites and snippet news. Today, speeches are written with the aim of facilitating and encouraging sharing on social networks. The anaphora of François Hollande -- "I, as President of the Republic ..." --     repeated 15 times during the presidential debate with his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 French presidential campaign, became an instant Internet meme and a trending topic on Twitter.

If Twitter had existed in 1963, "I have a dream" would have become Martin Luther King's most retweeted tweet. The historic quote still resonates half a century later. Come to think of it, all famous quotes can easily fit into 140 characters. Add a link to the tweet and followers can read more on a website or in a blog post, which often go hand in hand with the Twitter feed. A tweet is like the headline of an article: If the headline is well written and enticing, you will read the rest of the article; clumsy and badly worded, you will skip over it.

No other social network allows a government message to go viral or potentially reach such a worldwide audience. There is no other social network that allows for direct and unfettered interaction with world leaders. Today, anyone can send an "@" mention to a world leader on Twitter. That leader might not see the "@" mention personally, but his or her staff will definitely get the message.

The power of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook is that they connect people globally and bring citizens closer to their leaders. The social-media team of the White House has best understood how to connect the president directly with his constituents using all major social networks available. The White House uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and even Reddit to connect with Americans. U.S. President Barack Obama has sat down for two YouTube interviews, where the questions were sourced from the YouTube community via video. He travelled to Facebook headquarters for a town hall meeting moderated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who put questions from Facebook users to the president. The U.S. administration organized a twitter town hall at the White House, moderated by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Obama used the occasion to publicly write and send a personal tweet signed "bo," sending himself the first question to kick off the Q&A session. In the run-up to the 2012 U.S. elections, Obama's social-media activity picked up, culminating with an AMA -- "ask me anything" -- session on Reddit. Obama remains the most digitally savvy political leader in the world, with a massive Twitter following of more than 20 million.

That said, Obama's (@BarackObama) Twitter activity is clearly targeted at his constituents and re-election. His campaign account rarely mentions any foreign-policy statements, and systematically blanks his international trips. G8 and G20 meetings with his peers are generally not reported on his personal Twitter feed. At the recent General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, most world leaders used Twitter to live tweet their remarks, or to share pictures of their bilateral meetings. There was no mention of the president's speech at the United Nations General Assembly on the @BarackObama account, which tweeted about bumper stickers and NFL referees instead.

Who is tweeting personally?

Barack Obama rarely tweets personally, and if he does, his "bo" tweets become national news stories. Thirty heads of state and government do their own tweeting. The most conversational are Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (@AmamaMbabazi) and the prime minister of Rwanda, Pierre Damien Habumuremyi (@HabumuremyiP), both of whom engage personally with their followers on Twitter. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (@Najib_Mikati) holds occasional Twitter chats with his followers, while Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (@NajibRazak) invited his 500,000th follower for breakfast. The Croatian government organizes regular tweet-ups for 50 lucky followers at its government offices.

Unfortunately, all too often, politicians only discover Twitter during election campaigns, when their every word and deed is suddenly documented by their digital teams in 140 characters or less. Once elected, these accounts often go silent. Among the famous dormant profiles are the accounts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (@DilmaBR) and French President François Hollande (@FHollande): Both abandoned their Twitter followers after taking office. Interestingly, both accounts have nonetheless continued to gain followers, indicating a clear desire on the part of the people to connect with their leaders.

'The most effective diplomats will carry iPads rather than letters of credence.'

Some argue that politicians simply do not have the time to engage personally on social networks that are often seen as a distraction. This might be true, but if world leaders have time to read newspapers or answer letters (as Barack Obama still does each week), they should surely take the time to at least dip into their Twitter feed for half an hour each week to engage in an unscripted and impromptu Twitter chat with their followers.

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Presented by

Matthias Lüfkens

Matthias Lüfkens is the former head of digital media at the World Economic Forum and digital practice leader at Burson-Marsteller.

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