The rules of engagement on social media

Digital diplomacy is a two-way street – once an organisation like the Foreign Office is publishing news, comment, and policy information on the internet , then it needs to learn how to listen and respond too.

At ministerial level, this is a problem of opportunity and timetabling more than anything. Opportunities for participation on television and in newspapers are presented relatively often and ministers often take them. And, increasingly, the organisation is getting used to ‘putting the minister up’ for debate on the internet too. There are different approaches – from the Foreign Secretary’s Twitter engagements to the Minister for Europe responding on YouTube to questions and on to the Minister for the Middle East answering questions he received on Facebook .

All those interactions took place in social media spaces, and for good reason. The process, etiquette even, of such engagement is known to its users and there’s no registration or log-in beyond what people are already (presumably) happy with. What’s more, moderation is less of a problem. People logging in with their digital persona are less likely to break the rules of polite engagement if it means their friends and followers will see what an unfriendly cuss-pot they are being.

But what if they aren’t? What if users start to post comments and material that we aren’t comfortable with? And what about when it gets abusive? We do monitor our social media as a matter of habit, so we know what’s going on, but the point at which we jump in can be a tricky one to judge. The FCO’s corporate social media channels are run by civil servants not politicians, and there are limits to our role.

But we try to respond – a reasonable request for information will almost always get a reasonable response. Attempts to provoke debate on policy can be trickier – a civil servant is the deliverer of policy, the policy itself is owned by the politicians, so while we’re (usually) as helpful as we can be, there is a limit to how much we can get into lengthy debate on the whys and wherefores of policy. We do run online consultations, and hope to do more of this sort of engagement. But don’t be surprised if a lot of the time we are to be found pointing at the explainers of policy (speeches or articles), rather than debating the policy itself.

But much depends on the tone – we’re unlikely to respond to a passing comment or joke, even the rare funny ones. Even less so to the abusive posts and tweets, and there’s a number of those. Again there are no hard rules, aside from the normal rules of personal interaction. If someone genuinely wants a response, they should just ask themselves if abusing the source is the most likely way to get an answer. Doesn’t usually work for me, I know that.

But we’re aware that the more we respond, the more effective our digital operation will be. The terms of engagement are matters of judgement and, more often than not, we are likely to err on the side of information rather than debate, but a reasonable request, reasonably put, is liable to get the ball rolling.

Twitter: JimmyTLeach

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply