Facebook Makes Embassy Friends, Twitter Too Short for Diplomacy

About six months ago, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, was making an official visit when he received a phone call from a friend asking what he was doing in Texas.

“How do you know I’m here?” the ambassador responded.

It had been on Facebook, said Bader Bin Saeed, media director for U.A.E.’s embassy in Washington.

About a dozen foreign embassies in Washington keep active accounts on Facebook Inc.’s social-networking site, the world’s most popular, updating them daily and attracting thousands of visitors with photos and video. Seven have opened their accounts just this year.

“We would like to be where people are,” said Alexandre Vidal Porto, a minister counselor at the Brazilian Embassy. “People are on Facebook, and immaterially there we are.”

Brazil’s page was opened last month and posts basic information about the nation biweekly. It already has almost 500 people who respond that they “like” it.

At the Turkish Embassy, officials considered official information as usually boring and viewed Facebook as a means for ordinary people to express their opinions, said an embassy official. By allowing Facebook followers to comment freely, the embassy also encounters the occasional negative comment.

Some of the comments can be nasty, the embassy official said, citing embassy policy against being identified by name. Even so, he said, comments remain on the page if their content isn’t offensive.

Negative Comments

Hannes Richter, press director at the Austrian Embassy, said he remembered how the British Embassy responded to negative comments on Facebook posts by asking people to consider phrasing them more politely.

“We get the usual handful of ‘likes’ and one or two responses,” Richter said about the Austrian Embassy’s page. “We’re not pushing for a response.”

The Austrian page has been active since last year and has about 700 followers. While reaching 1,000 would please the embassy, he said, it isn’t the primary concern.

The U.A.E. wants its social media to “evolve into more of a two-way conversation” with followers, Bin Saeed said.

Similarly, the British and Israeli embassies, with more than 2,000 followers each, use their pages to answer questions like how to vote in forthcoming elections and apply to colleges.

A few embassies have Twitter accounts adding to their Facebook feed. The Austrian Embassy is creating two new accounts focusing exclusively on art and foreign policy in an effort to attract more issue-oriented followers, said Richter.

The Brazilian Embassy doesn’t dismiss the possibility of opening a Twitter account, while doesn’t believe it applies to the kind of work done by an embassy, Porto said

“What can we convey in 140 characters?” he said.

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