British Ambassador to Romania: For me, social media has been a successful experiment

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We are continuing our series of interviews with a new special guest: His Excellency The British Ambassador to Romania, Martin Harris. Mr. Harris is a passionate user of social media and his institution is one of the most active British embassies in Europe when it comes to digital use of communication. So where did this all started from, how did they manage to reach this achievement and what drives Mr. Harris to use digital media in his work? Let’s find out!

You have a Twitter account and a blog, your embassy has a strong social media presence in Romania. Why did you choose to use social media and what has the impact been for you as an ambassador?

In each case I’ve started by experimenting. I like to start something new and this is something that I always discuss with my team here in the embassy. I am willing to try anything, at least for a few months. So I started by blogging and I found that it has a great response, a lot of people are interested in the blog, a lot of news agencies and organizations are willing to carry the messages that I put out on the blog. I guess there’s also a novelty element to this as there weren’t too many ambassadors blogging at that time when I started. So I found this very efficient, as a way of getting my messages out and also personalizing those messages a little bit. I think a blog is more interesting than a press release.

I then moved on to Twitter for 2 reasons: one was that we had a successful embassy Facebook page and I wanted to get a bit of that action in social media. We decided to maintain the embassy’s account but have something more personal for me – my own Twitter account. The second reason I started using Twitter was because I felt it was difficult to find the time to blog regularly and Twitter is much more efficient in terms of time – I can tweet what I’m doing much more regularly than I blog about it. That is not to say that blogging is not important, it’s good to have a relationship between blog, Facebook account and Twitter account to keep all these three tools connected but my advantage is that I can tweet in the car between one meeting and  another so it’s a much easier way to keep people informed about what I am doing and also to react quickly if I need to to events in Romania or in the UK.

So, are you also using social media to get informed, not only to communicate?

Of course, and this is one of the most valuable things about Twitter, particuarly in foreign policy. I think it began in the US, where the foreign policy community interacts a lot on Twitter, all the main think tanks, the principle  ambassadors and players, a lot of that conversation is happening on Twitter.  From there I think the conversation moved to London and Brussels and now a lot of the EU policy community is on Twitter. So you need, as an ambassador, to be following, I think, foreign ministers like William Hague, the Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, European Council President Herman van Rompuy – these are all people very active on Twitter. So yes I use Twitter a lot to get in touch with the latest analysis and foreign policy thinking across the world.

Last year you attended TedEx Bucharest and inserted Twitter into your speech. Tell us a bit about where that idea came from and what was the reaction you got.

I came up with the idea because TedEx is very connected to social media and I thought that rather than having a powerpoint presentation which would be restricted to the people in the room, how about having a presentation that I can share simultaneously with the whole community. So I decided that instead of having ten slides of PPT I would have 10 tweets and I would compress the speech to each of these. We did this as an experiment, it worked technically, I had my Twitter feed put up on the screen behind me so each idea I presented was followed up on the screen behind me by my tweet. But what I found more fantastic was that I could get the reaction from the people in the room who were tweeting back as I was speaking. Also of course the speech reached a much broader audience, my tweets were re-tweeted by other people as well. So it turned out to be a good example of both how to get that immediate feedback from the audience  and also how to amplify the message.

When one discusses about social media and its advantages and disadvantages, one recurring thought goes out to crisis management and threat of being criticized and exposed to uncomfortable situations. Have you ever been confronted with such a situation? And if yes, could you please give us an example?

Rarely, I don’t find there are many problems. I suppose occasionally you get comments on Twitter from more extreme opinions and I don’t respond to those. But I do try to respond to other comments because I think one of the great things about Twitter is the fact that you can engage with your audience. So if people are commenting on my Twitter feed I try to comment back and have that engagement.

How about any positive or memorable event since you’ve started being active on social media?

A couple of examples actually: when I was travelling, doing regional travel, I set up in Sibiu a meeting with bloggers and active users of social media. So I spent some time in Sibiu with this very interesting group of people. I found that fascinating because it allowed me to get a local perspective from an engaged and interesting community and to put that alongside what I’m hearing from the business community and other communities I’m meeting in my job. So this is one example that comes to mind and I want to thank the bloggers in Sibiu and Medias for the interesting talk.

The other thing which I found interesting is that social media allowed me to have access to some audiences I wouldn’t have access to otherwise, for example Romanian students in the UK. A lot of them follow me on Twitter and when they have issues that they want to raise they raised them with me directly on Twitter. And I found that this sort of engagement with people directly affected by the bilateral relationship is very valuable to me.

So would you say that digital media can complement the policy side of your work?

Definitely. I don’t see it as being different from the press and communication work that any embassy or ambassador should be doing. It’s just that it’s a new tool, it adds something else to the channels one can use and when you want to “hit the ball” you can choose to use a press statement, a speech or a tweet or a post on Facebook. And these are different tools that are available at different times so I think it’s always important, in support of any policy, to have a communication strategy; social media just widens the tools available for us to do our work.

The internet is much faster in Romania than in the UK, works much better on my phone

How do you find the digital market in Romania and could you draw a comparison with the one in the UK?

Well, I noticed that the internet is much faster in Romania than in the UK, works much better on my phone and one of the things I appreciate most when I’m back in the UK is how fast the internet is in Romania. I think Romania has some huge advantages in the digital single market because it has such good IT infrastructure, it has 60,000 IT engineers and the industry has been growing incredibly rapidly in the last 3-5 years. It is building websites for banks in the City of London, for football clubs in the Premier League, it is the “website factory” of Europe, it’s building the Europe Digital Single Market. So I think this a really interesting and exciting place for online services both in creating and in delivering them.

On March 25th we are going to organize in Bucharest a Mediafax Talks Conference dedicated to the EU Digital Single Market, where I plan to bring people so that we can share from this experience, show what British companies are doing in the market; we can look at issues like cyber-security (very important for the digital single market and we need to discuss solutions on that)  and we can use Bucharest as the place to discuss the policy and economic issues that are necessary for the digital single market to take off in the future. At the moment, unfortunately, a low proportion of online trade crosses the borders of the EU and that’s partly because the credit card doesn’t work or is not accepted in another place because the rules of one website don’t allow that access. But there’s no reason why that should be the case. If you want to buy from a site in the Netherlands or Denmark or UK, than the single market should allow for that. And equally, the single market should allow that those people sell their goods online in Romania.

So we think that we should do more on this and the UK would like to stand by Romania in this effort.

Who are you usually following on Twitter?

I follow bloggers, the main news agencies, any politicians that are out there. I wished there were a bit more, I wished there were more to follow the example of Valeriu Zgonea and see a Twitter account as part of their job. I follow other diplomats, my colleagues, other ambassadors from elsewhere in the world and that’s really useful because I can follow what they are doing and I can learn from them, learn to pick up some ideas. For example I follow our High Commissioner in New Zealand.  A few years ago, here in Romania, I wouldn’t have had any idea what our ambassador is doing in New Zealand but now, thanks to Twitter, I can see regularly what she is up to.

Speaking about learning from others – would you say the Foreign Office is supportive of their staff learning how to use social media?

Yes, certainely. And it is doing that mainly by encouraging people like me, who have experimented with this, to share our lessons with other colleagues. I really appreciate that we are being encouraged to use these tools. Of course there is a risk, people can make mistakes, but better to make a mistake than not to make an impact. So we are given the license to experiment with this new media and see how we can make it work.

Of course there is a risk when it comes to online communication, people can make mistakes, but better to make a mistake than not to make an impact.

You will be moving on next year in a new position. Will you continue to use social media in your activity?

Yes, I am sure I will, as I said it is an experiment, I’ve been experimenting with it here in Romania and the experiment has been a success. So I think I am now hooked on Twitter.

Social media CV

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