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Tips for DFAT: how to Facebook

So much digital diplomacy is lost to the ether, but a few posts, in a few surprising places, are a real hit.

(Photo: Omar Marques via Getty)
(Photo: Omar Marques via Getty)
Published 8 Aug 2018   Follow @dspray

There are approximately 340,000 people in Timor-Leste using Facebook. More than a quarter of them follow the Australian Embassy in Dili’s Facebook page. This number is growing. The figures from Papua New Guinea and Cambodia are similarly encouraging. Why?

Before answering, consider another experience. The Australian diplomatic posts in Britain, Canada, the US and New Zealand (fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence network and important strategic allies that are culturally close) attract fewer than 0.02% of the possible Facebook audience. For every solitary Kiwi paying attention to us, there’s 1000 eager Timorese. Why?

It’s not only Australia. I’ve reviewed 150 Facebook pages published by eight countries (Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and the US) in 22 locations. My recently published research shows (see the table below) that these Facebook pages are almost always more successful in countries that are smaller, poorer, and closer. Again, why?

Facebook reach (average of 8 publisher nations)

LocationFB reach %per cap GDP (nom)Popn (000,000)
Hong Kong0.185$43,6817.9
South Korea0.035$27,53950.62
Key>1%low-middle income<10m
 0.11%high-middle income10m100m
 <0.1%high income> 100m


The answers all relate to the underlying usefulness, or otherwise, of Facebook for diplomatic purposes. These principles should inform strategy, resourcing, and training for Australia’s diplomats.

To be honest, most Facebook posts are largely ignored, or go unseen. And this is more so in the big and rich countries that have large media industries and where there are plenty of sources of information that compete with Facebook for attention.

Generally, in these bigger, richer countries, Facebook engagement with diplomatic pages is flattening out or declining.

Recent changes to the Facebook algorithm make it even less likely that a post will be seen by an individual unless they or their network are regularly engaging with posts from that account, or payment is made to Facebook to boost the post.

That doesn’t mean all Facebook posts are pointless. Those few that matter, can matter a lot. Those that don’t matter are harmless – mostly.

As a way of influencing international public opinion, Facebook is probably irrelevant, and may even be harmful if it acts as a lightning rod for local disaffection.

As a way of engaging international audiences in matters of foreign policy and of influencing international public opinion, Facebook is probably irrelevant, and may even be harmful if it acts as a lightning rod for local disaffection. The message is simple: proceed with care.

Facebook posts featuring the activities of diplomats and visiting dignitaries – such as the very common photograph of serious people in suits shaking hands in front of a banner – are unlikely to engage with a large audience, unless you are an Obama or a young British Royal.

Yet these posts may be important for the VIPs appearing in said “grip and grin” images, which is fair enough, provided that putting them together doesn’t take too much time or effort. (An American diplomatic officer once told me of the entire day she spent putting together one, largely ignored, Facebook post, when she certainly had better things to do.)

What Facebook is good for (memo to DFAT: direct your public diplomacy staff at your overseas missions to these) is informational posts – advertising jobs, and educational and funding opportunities. This works particularly well in those countries where Australia is an important source of these jobs or grants, such as in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.

Information about visa requirements and procedures for prospective immigrants, tourists, and students, and essential information for Australian expats (for example, how to vote in elections while overseas) are also popular. These are the types of posts that probably should be boosted through paying to promote them – it’s a reasonably cheap and targeted form of legitimate advertising.

Facebook is also very useful for promoting aid and development activities, especially during crises and disasters. Posts about Australia’s assistance in Fiji after Cyclone Winston in 2016 (and Japan’s similar assistance in Mexico in 2017) were among the most popular reviewed.

Some other tips from the research? Don’t ever miss important local national days, especially memorials and remembrances. Do use local languages if at all possible, especially in videos, and – even better – tap into local cultural memes and make references to local people, places, food, events, and so on.

Ambassadors that do well on Facebook are personable, articulate, and engaging. Among Australia’s ambassadors, Brendan Berne in Paris exemplifies this by posting his appearances on local TV and at important commemorative events related to Australia’s military history in France, as well as his proposal to his partner Thomas soon after Australia legislated marriage equality. All in very good French. Très bien. (No coincidence: Australia’s Facebook page in France is one of the few to have increased their engagement over the last year.)

But not every ambassador or consul-general needs to be on social media. Some just aren’t that interested or have the aptitude. This is not an impediment to a successful social media presence if the local audience – their interests and the best ways of engaging them – are well understood. Locally engaged staff are usually best placed to advise on strategy and execute the campaigns.

The key to all social media diplomacy, like all public diplomacy, is to understand that it must serve the interests of the public. In places such as Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea, that public is very interested.

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