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E-diplomacy in action: Interview with Philip Roskamp


Fergus Hanson


This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

11 May 2011 15:07

This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

One of the most successful examples of the government use of social media has been the US Embassy in Jakarta's Facebook page, which we have profiled several times.

In this email interview, Philip Roskamp, who runs the page (and is Assistant Press Attaché at the Embassy), gives a detailed and candid look behind the page as well as offering some great insights for any foreign ministry or corporation that uses, or is looking to use, social media.

Q. Your Facebook page is legendary, now with over 310,000 fans. Can you outline some of the history of the page – why it was set up, decisions you took on style and language, and why you think its following has grown so dramatically? 

A: The page began a few years ago with my predecessor and the Embassy Jakarta Public Affairs Section staff. At that time, US Embassies and Consulates were starting to get involved with social media as a way to better connect with host country audiences, particularly youth. 

We have made the decision to post as much content in Bahasa Indonesian as possible. While we put out some English content via Twitter as part of a weekly English program, we figure the best way to connect with Indonesians is through their language — Bahasa Indonesian.   

I think we have enjoyed success for a few key reasons: availability of hardware, popularity of software platforms, President Obama's close ties to Indonesia, and a focus on generating user-relevant content.

Indonesia has around 15% Internet penetration according to most survey data, and like most countries connectivity drops outside major cities. However, Indonesia has one of the most robust mobile markets in the world, and we have heard from local contacts possibly as many as half of Indonesian internet users access through mobile phones. A local mobile media company estimates 80% of mobile phones in use are 'WAP-enabled,' or can view graphics. Over time, costs for WAP-enabled phones, smart phones, and data plans have dropped, making the internet more affordable and accessible for millions of people.

Those Indonesians active online already have decided Twitter and Facebook are tools they want to use — we don't have to convince them. Indonesia has the second-largest Facebook community worldwide, the highest Twitter penetration, and there are more than 2.7 million blogs. In other Asian countries, for example, some governments do not allow free access to these tools, some countries lack a culture of free expression, and other user communities might use an entirely different set of online platforms. Each diplomatic mission, or company for that matter, has to research what platforms are the most popular in a particular country.   

Never before has the United States had a President with such close ties to Indonesia as we do now. President Obama lived in Indonesia for four years as a young child, which has captured the imagination of the Indonesian people and provided us with a unique opportunity to deepen the bilateral relationship. There seems to be real curiosity and interest in the United States.   

One of our maxims when generating content is to recognise we can't change the way Indonesians use Facebook; instead, we have to find a way to be relevant to Indonesian users on their terms. Approximately 89% of Indonesian Facebook users are under the age of 35, and 65% under the age of 25. Our content, therefore, reflects these demographics. We don't think this 89% demographic uses Facebook to read serious messaging from a foreign government.

Personally speaking, I'm not on Facebook to read serious messaging from a foreign government and don't expect other to be either. I’m on to have fun, read something interesting, and keep in touch with friends. What does this mean for our content? For example, we don't post press releases or official statements on Facebook because we are realistic about what kind of interaction and engagement those sorts of postings would generate. For a page to be successful, users should drive content generation, and not the other way around. Content generated without regard for users will be irrelevant. The trifecta of Facebook metrics — impressions, likes, and comments — are very helpful ways to see if you are hitting the mark with the user community.     

Q: Now that you have over 300,000 fans, what does the Facebook page enable the US Embassy in Jakarta to do that it couldn’t do previously? And what do you see as the core role for the page?

A: Social media offers several advantages over traditional media: you have the potential to connect with many more people since online content can be shared more easily than an interview on a particular TV station or a hard copy article in a daily newspaper, people can respond to content they like or don't like and have their comments read by others, individual members of an online community can engage in discussions with each other, and anyone can take part in the discussion.

In contrast, TV — to use one example — usually doesn't offer common people a chance to voice their opinions, individual TV viewers don't interact with each other about particular programs unless they are in the same room watching together, and very few programs offer viewers the chance to comment on content directly and in real time. Having a larger Facebook or Twitter following magnifies all of these advantages. Instead of say 50,000 people interacting with a posting on the greenest cities in Indonesia, we have 311,000 who can post responses and start a dialogue with friends and total strangers. 

An additional benefit to a large following is reflected in Indonesian geography: there are 240 million people in Indonesia spread out over 17,000 islands. We have US diplomatic representation in Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, and a consular officer in Bali. We can't be everywhere at once, but our messaging can. The bigger the following, the more likely it is — we hope — we are reaching other areas and people.

The core roles for the page are the following: let Indonesians know what America stands for and its values, generate discussion about topics as light as favorite American foods and as heady as what steps we can take in our daily lives to protect the environment and fight climate change, provide forums through which Indonesians can connect with each other, and share information about education opportunities in America.       

Q: How do you find Indonesians engage with the page and how do you engage with them? Is engagement the key, or do you see it as something else?

A: For us, success on any given day is measured by coming up with a daily posting that generates significant fan engagement. If we post something only a few people see or interact with, we feel like we got something wrong. The resonance of any particular message is directly linked to engagement. For me, the best metaphor for social media success is, 'If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?' If you post content that generates no interaction, you might as well not have posted anything. Therefore, a posting that leads to a high number of impressions — people actually taking the time to view a posting — increases the chance for likes and comments and people actually taking the time to interact with a posting. Conversely, fewer impressions create a lower likelihood of fan interaction.

It's important to understand membership in a social media community is totally voluntary and users can opt out. A press release or Embassy statement, for example, might be unpopular but important to make on policy, moral, or other grounds. Except in rare cases, you won't know the public reaction to this kind of traditional diplomatic messaging. With respect to social media platforms, however, if users don't like the content, you'll know right away: a posting won't generate fan interaction and, worse, fans can leave. Diplomatic missions, therefore, face hard choices about content and have to do a cost-benefit analysis, based on experience and analytics, of what makes the most sense for the overall health of a page. 

This doesn't always sit well with people who see social media as a 'panacea', so to speak, for any type of diplomatic messaging. We constantly hear, 'Put it on Facebook. Tweet about it'. As a result, we spend considerable time doing what I call 'in-reach', explaining to Embassy colleagues why some content is appropriate for social media and other not, and how to best package messaging. Sometimes it's hard for people to understand using social media tools to keep up with friends and family is quite different than developing and implementing a public affairs strategy to keep and maintain a robust following of total strangers. 

For example, if a friend posts something that's objectionable to me or makes a bad decision in his life, I likely won’t 'unlike' him on Facebook. We have a relationship external to and beyond Facebook. With respect to the US Embassy page, however, if we post boring content, content that offends, or someone decides they don't like the United States because of events external to our Facebook page, turning us off is just one click away.   

My advice is for governments to see social media as one tool out of many possible public diplomacy options. At the end of the day, person-to-person diplomacy is still the best way to build relationships between two countries. Beyond person-to-person interaction, the public diplomacy toolbox is filled with different options: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and social media. People shouldn't get caught up on the tools — ultimately, the message is still the most important aspect of connecting with foreign audiences.   

Q: Do you have any specific examples you could share of how the Facebook page has contributed towards US objectives in Indonesia?

 A: One example is the campaign we used to prepare for President Obama's November 2010 visit to Indonesia, which was an historic moment for our two countries. We prepared a comprehensive campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and through local online websites to generate enthusiasm among Indonesians. Through a welcome message contest, Facebook and online ads, and contests with ticket giveaways to President Obama's public speech at the University of Indonesia, we were able to create an online buzz for the visit that generated huge increases in Facebook fans and Twitter followers. At one level, the first challenge was to capture more of the Facebook user market, and the second was to keep them as fans after the visit ended. Thus far, we have been successful on both accounts.     

Q: Have there been any specific learning experiences you’ve had along the way that might be helpful for others using social media for similar purposes?

A: There are a few helpful and important tips I would give to social media managers. First, you should know your users. Are they young or old? Men or women? Online in the morning or night? What do users like to do on Facebook and Twitter? This is not a perfect science, but you have to make your best guesses for content based on who is part of the online community and what they are doing. 

Second, managers have to plan content. We develop a Facebook plan for the month, a daily Twitter schedule, and special campaigns weeks or months in advance. So much happens in the world of public affairs — and social media is only one of our many responsibilities — that failing to plan ahead could mean missing the moment for effective messaging. 

Third, tracking online interactions will help you determine what types of content your community does and does not like. Failing to track this data, particularly when it's easy to do through Facebook analytical data and lots of Twitter programs like Hootsuite, will leave you guessing about what constitutes effective content. Luckily, there are lots of free websites out there willing to grade a page's influence, reach, and online 'clout'. Some sites tell you exactly how many fans you gain and lose based on particular tweets. These types of analytics are very helpful for planning purposes. 

Fourth, although these are digital tools, you need to invest the time to meet your host country's online influencers. They will tell you what they like and don’t like about your page, let you know who is doing it right, and inform you of online trends. All of these are important aspects of managing content in a rapidly changing online environment. 

Last, determine what works best for you and your user community. As much as possible, don't let the home office or someone else tell you what is best or drive your content. Who knows better what your users want: you, or the home office?

Q: Finally, could you summarise your own view of what e-diplomacy is about?

A: At the US State Department, Secretary Clinton has helped create and champion '21st Century Statecraft,' which she defines as 'the complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.' 

What this means to me and my team as content generators and community managers is that advances in online media and communications technologies have given us opportunities to interact with people like never before. People can get our daily English idiom posted to Twitter, for example, anywhere they have mobile reception — they don't even have to be sitting in front of a computer; our fans can comment on content and ask us questions in real time whether they are stuck in Jakarta traffic or on lunch break at a school thousands of miles away; and we can hear from fans — of any ethnicity, gender, age, economic class, or religion — about issues that are most important to them, rather than simply pushing out messaging. 

Maybe one meaning for the 'e' in e-diplomacy is evolution. I feel like I have been part of a generation of first adopters of social media tools for government public diplomacy and have been doing a lot of things for the first time. Five years from now, I imagine the digital diplomacy landscape will be completely different, both in terms of the technology available and the level of collective digital know-how among diplomats. On the technical side, for example, one only needs to look at the manner in which over the course of a few years Facebook totally eclipsed Friendster as the most popular social media platform in Southeast Asia to see how quickly things can change. If we don't evolve, too, we'll miss out on fantastic opportunities to connect with foreign audiences.

Photo by Flickr user FindYourSearch.