NATO and Digital Diplomacy in 2017 / Tacan İldem

Tacan İldem, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy

Much has been written over the last years on e-diplomacy or digital diplomacy. The initial articles mainly focused on the question whether governments, let alone governmental representatives, should even be on social media and what role they could possibly play. We have moved on since then and the focus is nowadays no longer on the Why, but has shifted to the What, Where and How. Social media has become an integral part of the diplomacy toolkit and if done well, digital diplomacy is a very effective soft power tool, allowing us to reach a global audience at low cost. Additionally, politicians and governments have discovered that they can speak directly to the public without having to go through different governmental channels and or the traditional media outlets.

NATO has gone through a similar adaptation process. While the Alliance may be slow to change in some areas, the shift to embrace digital outreach, social media and real storytelling happened fairly quickly, it actually happened in just a few years…but we had no choice. NATO has a clear mandate to inform our audiences so we must, by default, maintain pace with the changes in how the world is communicating. Those changes are now happening faster than ever, and require the Alliance to have the ability to actively communicate and to respond as quickly to a communications challenge as it does to a global crisis.

In order to do this, we set out selecting the most effective and global social media platforms where our key audiences were present and where they were already having a conversation about NATO, ‘without us in the room’ so to speak. NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division encouraged a bottom up process but also ensured support from the top leadership. However, we also took the time to learn from other international organizations, governmental organizations and their representatives. The latter was facilitated through our annual “Social Media for International Organizations Forum (#SMIOForum), a conference where thought leaders share ideas with communicators and social media experts from other international organizations and from member and partner nations governments. This forum has grown into a place where best practices are shared but also a place where we can learn from each other’s mistakes without having to replicate them on our accounts. The Social Media Forum has played a key role in helping us define the path, measure progress of NATO’s digital direction and adjust accordingly.  It has also supported us in our enduring effort to further the communication capacity of NATO as an organisation, as well as Allies and partners.

Over the last five years we have seen significant growth on all our official social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Google+) and currently have a combined digital audience of close to two million people. NATO has clearly embraced social media as an integral part of its digital diplomacy toolkit.

However, having a presence on social media is one thing but should not be a goal in itself. We should not focus blindly on the number of fans and followers of our accounts but instead measure what matters and look at engagement, communication with influencers and how social media can make a difference. It is important to measure the outcomes, not only our outputs.

Additionally, social media also has other uses beyond merely conveying our messages. It can also be used to listen to what the public is saying about NATO, to understand which topics they are interested in and to gauge their knowledge and understanding of the Alliance, thus helping us to define our future communication topics.

NATO has continuously adapted the way it communicates on social media by looking at the data to evaluate what works best and which messages, topics and themes resonate well with our audiences, as well as how we can best transmit these messages so they reach the broadest possible audience. NATO is focused on delivering quality content to key audiences on our different social media channels. We can definitively say:  more people than ever before are receiving NATO’s messages, seeing NATO related content and connecting with NATO because of our digital outreach.

We must continually develop our efforts to communicate to mass audiences effectively, to eliminate filters between the message and the audience, and maintain pace with the technology trends shaping communications.

We are also committed to bringing more NATO voices into the social media discussions taking place that are relevant to the Alliance. We added more NATO voices on Twitter where the communication is no longer carried from a single official NATO account (@NATO or @NATOPress) but is amplified and stimulated through a number of different official accounts (e.g. @jensstoltenberg, @gottemoeller, @NATOIldemT, @camille_grand, @sducaru, @NATORomeroC, @JamesAppathurai, etc). These Twitter accounts allow their owners to share NATO related topics to specific niche markets and interested audiences but more importantly these are also the accounts that allow for more dedicated engagement with the target audience. It is difficult to win the hearts and minds of the public through official documents and press releases only, so these additional accounts allow for a sometimes more personal touch using different ways to communicate our core messages.

In 2017 NATO started using Live Video on Facebook and soon the live video will also be streamed to our Twitter and YouTube accounts. Live video is growing in importance and again puts our content in front of the audience where they are already present, without the need for them to leave their preferred social media platform. This shows that NATO is keeping pace with new and emerging trends without necessarily being early innovators, but more importantly using specific technology only when its effect and impact has been proven.

One possible stumbling block for the future is that social media has reached the commercialisation age and that more companies have to start increasing their advertising budgets to get their message in front of their target audiences. Over recent years, the organic reach on Facebook globally has dropped to a meagre 5-7%. Commercial companies compensate for this low reach by adding significant marketing budgets. From that perspective, NATO’s content is performing extremely well given that our content relies on purely organic reach.

Two of our more recent native video uploads on Facebook registered organic reach of 300-400% – thus reaching three to four million people and registering more than one million video views each. These are really impressive results and show that when done well, our message does travel far beyond our traditional fan/follower base and that we do manage to reach a demographic and interested audience that was untapped before.

It is important to realise that we are no longer dictating the channels and the way people consume NATO communication and NATO products. It is our role to be where our target audience is and to adapt the message to the platform and the audience.

I take this opportunity to extend my greetings and best wishes to the digital diplomacy community and social media followers.

Ambassador Tacan ILDEM
NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy

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