Digital as a window to an embassy’s work

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One of the main objectives of is to provide examples of great work around digital communication in the public sector. So we’ve decided to start a special section on our blog, dedicated to guest blogs and interviews with officials who chose to use social media in their daily activity. Today we are going to start this series with one of the most social media active ambassadors in Romania, Mr. Matthijs van Bonzel, Dutch Ambassador to Romania since 2011.

To my admiration and surprise I came to meet a very open diplomat, with a high enthusiasm for digital communication and an active supporter of Romania and an equally open and creative Head of Press and Cultural Affairs, Caroline Seebregts. And what was initially a Q&A session transformed into a 90 minutes chat about online communication, public diplomacy, the role of embassies in Romania and also about strengths and areas of potential growth for Romania in the future.

To start off with, let me tell you that the Netherlands Embassy in Romania has an official Facebook page, while the ambassador has his own official Twitter account.

Of course I was first curious to find out how Mr. Van Bonzel initially came in contact with digital diplomacy and what sparked his interest. He told me that he first started using social media back in 2010 when he was Ambassador in Central America. He was then responsible for three countries (Panama, Honduras, San Salvador) so he needed to find a way to stay connected with what was happening in all of these countries. It was in this context that he met Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her term. Alec gave a chat about modern communications and diplomacy at the annual meeting of Dutch ambassadors in The Hague in 2010. He spoke to them about how the digital media connects the US Secretary of State with all relevant industries and sectors, from business to civil society to government. The Ambassador thought he was “amazing” and his presentation about the digital communication “fascinating”, so he started using Twitter and “noticed that people reacted to it – people I didn’t usually get a reaction from (young people, intellectuals, students, journalists). And this broadens your perspective”, says Mr. Van Bonzel.

Of course things have not been easy from the beginning, because there have been discussions about how “dangerous” the digital media can be for a diplomat and that one might risk getting reprimanded by the Foreign Affairs Minister. But in general things progressed and some diplomats started using Twitter and Facebook more often. Let’s check back with Mr. Van Bonzel for more digital stories:

“Myself I went further to see how things go. I started to talk about things that are controversial, commenting, giving opinions and suggestions constructively about the country I’m in and gradually one can go a bit further – in Romania I am a firm believer and always talk about the fact that we have to support the justice reform, we have to adopt the civil code, the criminal code, a coherent jurisprudence. I get no negative reaction. Sometimes I get questions – like this Romanian who is connected to me who is very assertive and always asks <>. And I always take time to think and answer back and try to find a way in 140 characters to give good and substantial answers. Twitter is a test for me to see if I can express myself more clearly. Because us diplomats tend to make these smokescreens of formal language and diplomatic jargon. I try to throw that jargon out. After all, you have no space for that on social media. I try to adjust to the 140 characters, to be clear and concrete. One has to appeal to what the people understand and recognize. What we [diplomats] do is not secret work, I don’t need a smokescreen, our work is to promote  values of good governance, justice and market economy, to help create an environment that we think makes society a better place for individuals, for business, for NGO’s – so let’s not complicate it, let’s explain it in simple terms.”

Social media is about opening up embassies to the people

“Twitter is still developing in Romania, Facebook is more popular but I don’t use Facebook personally. The embassy as an institution does use it, it’s another approach there. There is still need to develop these tools and see what I could do with them. In Romania you have more and more citizens who want to express their opinion and make themselves heard, I appreciate that. I think the young Romanians are more assertive, very open to the West, I want to connect with these people. The modern Romania has no choice, it is a western market economy, a democracy with civil society that will more and more be open and critical and assertive and active and dynamic.”

The Ambassador says he is followed on Twitter by a diverse audience, from Romanian and foreign journalists to Dutch people living in Romania, from students and youth to NGOs. He likes this he says “because this makes things more accessible and direct. It creates a link between people one wouldn’t have easy access to otherwise.”

Caroline also mentioned that, as far as the embassy’s use of Facebook goes, the 2 channels usually support each other: they would sometimes cross promote information or just create specific information just for Facebook. Sometimes it may happen that the Ambassador makes a comment on his Twitter channel and the embassy would support that statement by promoting a certain project or event via Facebook. Also, the Embassy has a website which is more “static” so what they do is to promote information on social media and use links to generate traffic to the website.

Regarding use of social media by governments, Mr. Van Bonzel says that there is a need to give up the mentality that, if working for the public institutions, one needs to be “very formal, very distant, very high-nosed. It’s not the age for that anymore.” Also, he feels that we are witnessing a change of generations in the Romanian government and praised Prime Minister Victor Ponta for supporting this and promoting fresh ideas and creative communication approaches in the governmental apparatus.

Dutch politicians are engaged in social media communication with the citizens. Are Romanian politicians as well?

“Not much yet, Mr. Zgonea uses Twitter, the Mayor of Cluj is definitely active, the Prime Minister or some MEPs are active as well but not many more. Most Romanian politicians are using blogs. In the Netherlands politicians are communicating actively with the people. Both politicians and citizens  seem to enjoy it.”

Do you tweet according to a plan?

“I am not much of a planner, I don’t plan anything, I follow the news and react quickly. The smart phones are very useful, I get my news directly from the Twitter feed, I can take pictures as well and post them. My aim is to show what the embassy and myself are doing, to be engaged. We are a public institution, we have to justify what we are doing, we need to show that it is useful what we do. For instance, one of my colleagues from The Hague recently went to her old school to talk about foreign policy, migration and Europe. I joined them online and my colleague invited the students to ask me questions via Twitter. It was my first experience. There weren’t many questions yet but the experiment was great. It was fun for me, I was here in Bucharest but I could communicate with them there.”

Social media is about habit and style, to be credible one needs to talk about a variety of topics, both positive and less so

“In other parts of the world, for instance in the Middle East, the debate is much more passionate; our Foreign Minister at some point  closed his Facebook page because people discussing the Middle East became too polemic among themselves. He eventually opened it up again. I don’t have that sort of situations here. I sometimes talk about corruption or justice reform and get critical questions or remarks but I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. It’s a debate and I welcome it. I can link up with them and discuss. Sometimes it’s challenging because of t lack of time and the fact that you have to get to the core of the problem immediately in social media, you can’t be late with a reaction. But it works. I haven’t seen any uncomfortable situations. Romanians are very respectful in this regard.”

But this doesn’t mean the Ambassador is ignoring certain topics. He feels that users need to “get both sides of a story, the good and the bad. Otherwise you are not credible. Social media is about habit as well, accommodate people with a certain style of communication. I don’t think that we should communicate in the same style all the time because people will not take you seriously if you always talk about nice things.”

“For instance I was recently talking on Twitter about the Romanian Royal Family (Queen Ana’s birthday). In the Netherlands people were wondering why am I talking about the Royal family so I had to explain that. Also, also recently, I tweeted in English about some 49 pickpockets arrested in Amsterdam recently, out of which 42 were Romanians.”

We should not avoid uncomfortable facts. So I sometimes make a judgment, I try to see the context, I consider if I can make a statement about a certain issue. The key I think is to show that you are interested in a variety of topics, to show that you are not a single issue person, that you are involved. And that way you get people engaged. The Enescu Festival, architecture in Bucharest, the fast internet in Romania, language skills, culture and history – these are things that I try to promote via social media as well, I know these things on the one hand positively surprise the Dutch, and on the other hand appeal to the Romanians. With good reason they appreciate this attention to positive news. Romania should do more to promote itself, to promote these valuable things. Only a mix of strong and weak points make a balanced picture.”

Social media is now on the agenda of the Dutch Government, a strategy is in progress

“It’s just starting to, there is a team put in place in The Hague which has as an objective to set up a social media strategy, incorporating online media into the overall communication. Social media is now an item on the agenda of the Ambassadors’ conference as well, so they [the Dutch Government] are looking at this. And there are also social media training courses available for staff.

Digital diplomacy is part of public diplomacy

I asked him about public diplomacy and how he sees it linked to the digital age. He enthusiastically said that “we definitely need to link up websites to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks and see what we can do with it to get our messages across. We [the Dutch Embassy in Bucharest] focus less and less on the embassy as a tool in itself and try to put things online, so that if you are in Constanta/Cluj/Iasi etc., the embassy is still there, accessible for you, you can find out what you need online, a few clicks and you are there. We have to invest in this virtual window, less in the physical window.”

 Social media is an experiment, things are always changing, you need to be adaptable.

“Especially since diplomacy is an old fashioned and formal trade, trying to link this with the new way of communicating can be challenging, but at the same time interesting and motivating. There is a public demand in this regard, the diplomats need to be more transparent and more accessible in what they are doing. I like it when I see that people react on Facebook or Twitter to what we do. I have to master at some point the art of blogging, like my colleague does, the British Ambassador in Romania, Martin Harris. I need to look into that at some point. The society we want to show is a society with new values, with more communication, more transparency and less discrimination. We are only a few who are doing it. The fact that we are pioneers makes this even more enjoyable.”

Embassy of the Netherlands in Romania: Social profile

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