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Reader riposte: Australia no e-diplomacy slouch

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COMMENTS

6 June 2012 16:44

Dr Shannon Smith, a Jakarta-based public relations consultant who was Counsellor (Education) at the Australian Embassy, Jakarta, from 2005-2010, writes:

The decline of Australian public diplomacy capabilities is at a critical point. At its lowest point in years, some have been looking at alternative ways for Australia to engage internationally. The Lowy Institute for International Policy, in particular, has long been lamenting that DFAT does not use digital tools or social media to help promote Australia's foreign policy interests.

In a low-key fashion, earlier this year the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, launched its Facebook fan page, becoming the first overseas mission to do so. It is a very welcome move. The idea of using social media as a supplement to more traditional forms of public diplomacy has merit.

The Lowy Institute has in the past claimed 'Australia's diplomatic service, by contrast (to the United States of America), doesn't even use social media in Indonesia'. The Institute's criticism of DFAT's under-use of social media is spot on, but on the broader point of social media usage by Australia's diplomatic services it is incorrect, and no more so than in the case of Indonesia.

There are plenty of examples where Australian embassies have used websites, Facebook and other social media to promote Australian public diplomacy objectives. Not necessarily by DFAT but often by attached agencies, although the record admittedly is patchy. Tourism Australia, which promotes Australia overseas, recently developed a smart-phone application (though several years behind Malaysia's tourism authority). On the other hand, Austrade, the national trade promotional agency, hasn't yet developed a smart-phone application for its Study in Australia education information service.

The national education department (DEEWR) was at the forefront of the use of social media when it had responsibility for the promotion and marketing of Australian education overseas. Globally, DEEWR was at the cutting edge in terms of web presence with its worldwide, multi-lingual StudyinAustralia website. In Indonesia, it was leading the use of social media by Australian diplomatic services anywhere in the world.

In 2007, DEEWR established a Web 2.0 website (the same platform as Facebook, LinkedIn and others) called Ozmate to engage with Indonesians who had studied in Australia and since returned to Indonesia. Within months, it had thousands of subscribers, and the alumni networking website was not long after replicated by the US, UK, German and Dutch Embassies.

In addition to the use of social media for alumni activities, DEEWR had Friendster and Facebook accounts as far back as 2005, where the Australian Education Centres (AECs) were able to interact directly with prospective students, posting photos from workshops, tagging, leaving comments and answering follow-up questions. A local website provided news feeds about past and upcoming activities, and information and counselling for prospective students and their parents.

It is correct to say that social media would allow DFAT to engage with the public and interested groups. Indonesia is the world's 2nd biggest Facebook user (50 million users) and 15% of the world's tweets emanate from Indonesia (7 million users). Two years ago, the US Embassy in Jakarta (which Australia would like to emulate) created a Facebook fan page, and happily waved it in the faces of Australian diplomats in Jakarta who were restrained from using social media by bureaucrats and Ministerial offices in Canberra. 

The US Embassy Facebook fan page has 485,000 fans. To put this into quantitative terms, Indonesian motivational speaker Mario Teguh gets this many new Facebook fans every three months (he has 5.84 million fans). The latest Spiderman film had 2.5 million fans in Indonesia. So, Spiderman is five times more popular than Uncle Sam.

Indonesian musician and singer Sherina Munaf has 2.7 million followers on Twitter, and follows 400; while the US Embassy has 36,000 followers, and follows 6000. Sherina does not follow the US Embassy, but it follows her.

US e-diplomacy needs to be put into perspective. There are 55 million internet users in Indonesia, which means that less than 1% of those are currently reached by the US Embassy. With a total population of 245 million, the US Embassy reaches only 0.21% of all Indonesians via social media.

Compare the shallowness of interactions via social media to a traditional grass-roots strategy like the Australian Embassy's involvement in Deteksi, an annual and massive youth event in East Java. Each year over 100,000 junior and high school students compete to win the highly-prized Deteksi competition. To take the overall competition, students must first win the Australia quiz – to do that, they must have an in-depth knowledge of Australia (history, geography, politics, popular culture). There is no choice for the 100,000 teenagers; all who compete walk away with knowledge about Australia.

What is clear is that it is only one small, narrow demographic group that the US reaches through social media in Indonesia. The US Embassy is only reaching those already positively predisposed towards the US. Its social media strategy barely goes beyond the remit of engaging with its Facebook fans, simply talking to the already converted. The US Embassy strategy does not, however, reach the indifferent, ignorant or not seeking to know.

It makes sense for the Australian Embassy in Jakarta to be given the ability to engage in social media. It needs to engage with that portion of the community that uses social media, that is the young and middle class. This move should be applauded. And more so, because the Australian Embassy has done so without additional financial or personnel support — the US Embassy had significant new funds allocated to engage the best PR agencies in Jakarta to develop its strategy. So, kudos again to Australia's over-worked and under-funded diplomats.

However, it can't stop there! Social media can only do so much and reach so many. Social media only reaches the influential few, and reinforces their positive notions towards Australia. The Australian Embassy announcement stated, 'We hope that many friends of Australia in Indonesia will click "like" on our Facebook page'. It was an acknowledgment of the reality of how far e-diplomacy can go.

True public diplomacy goes beyond the already pre-disposed to the masses; to those indifferent, ignorant or not seeking to know. It seeks out a broader audience and encourages the general community to adopt a positive and open outlook. This is where Australia should be paying some serious attention. With only 22% of Indonesians accessing the internet, e-diplomacy is no solution in itself to the decline of Australia's broader public diplomacy capabilities — it is simply a necessary supplement.

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