Digital Diplomacy at the General Secretariat of the European Council / Alexandra Ekkelenkamp

Alexandra Ekkelenkamp – Advisor to the Director for Media and Communication

There are few organisations where digital diplomacy has so many faces as in the Council of the European Union and the European Council. As the “house of the member states”, we host regular meetings of EU diplomats, ambassadors, ministers and leaders, as well as multilateral summits. Many of them are very active online- they tweet, answer questions on Facebook or stream their work days live online. This is especially visible during European Council meetings, when EU leaders share news about the summit as it happens. As the General Secretariat of the Council, we support their work- and we add to the flow of information through our online channels.

Digital diplomacy started in earnest for us back in 2010. Incoming European Council president Herman Van Rompuy was a big Facebook fan. He had used this platform in his capacity as Belgian Prime Minister to stay in touch with his supporters. In his new role, he continued to use Facebook but quickly discovered the power of Twitter as a great tool to reach key multipliers such as journalists. This led to the creation of a set of social media accounts, both for the president of the European Council as well as the Council as a whole. On 13 July 2015, current European Council president Donald Tusk used Twitter to announce a deal on Greece after a night of negotiations. This tweet was widely shared- not just on Twitter, but also by newswires, TV and the written press.

Of course, digital diplomacy should be more than just “broadcast” communication. Ideally, it allows for an authentic, personal and interactive way to communicate. This is not always easy in practice, especially in a diplomatic context. Listening, for us, is a priority. We use social media as a source of information, which is looped back to our policy makers. We also respond to questions and comments from our followers as much as possible. Although European Council president Tusk is not using Twitter to reply to followers, he is very much kept in the loop and can use the tool to respond to news and current affairs.

The online landscape keeps changing- and we need to change with it. We look beyond social media for our digital diplomacy efforts. Our new website, which launched in 2015, is highly visual and optimised for all devices, including mobile. Increasingly, online interaction becomes visual, ranging from memes and GIFs to infographics and videos. Our challenge is to translate complex diplomatic texts into bite-sized, visual content that is easily accessible and easy to share. This could mean tweeting out a press release for journalists, creating an Instagram story for students, sharing infographics on LinkedIn or streaming speeches live on Facebook to a broader audience. Creativity, continuous innovation and a data-driven approach help us thrive in an increasingly crowded public space.

Future challenges for us will be to remain visible and accessible as the source of objective and reliable information on the work of the Council and European Council. Fighting fake news, filter bubbles and algorithms is challenging but crucial to international organisations such as ours. One way to do this is to enlist the help of EU citizens- for example, by hosting a DiploHack. In 2016 we worked with the Netherlands presidency of the Council to organise a hackathon in Brussels, offering Council open data to build an application that enables European citizens to truly understand what is going on in Europe.

Looking back at those first tweets, we’ve come a long way. At the Council General Secretariat, we are quite excited about taking digital diplomacy to the next level- using 360 videos and virtual reality, for example. Sometimes “the next level” means returning to the source: sitting down with more traditional colleagues, showing them the added value of social media, turning analogue diplomats into digital ones.

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