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To tweet or not to tweet

Apr 29,2014 - Last updated at Apr 29,2014

In 1805, it took over two weeks for news of the Royal Navy’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar to reach London.

A ship had to be sent from the scene of the battle, off the coast of Portugal, to the nearest English port. An officer then had to take a horse-drawn carriage to London.

Even then, the news was sketchy and families anxious for details of the number of sailors killed had to wait many more weeks.

Fast forward to today, when news teams are embedded with the military and pictures of battles are flashed onto our screens in real time.

Amateur film, for example, of the Syrian regime dropping barrel bombs on civilians, is on the Internet within minutes. News seeps out via social media, whether it is accurate or not.

Whoever gets in first can often dictate the tone and content of the way a development is viewed.

What does this mean for governments? And how should embassies adapt to the era of Twiplomacy?

The harsh fact is that all organisations have to adapt to survive.

If we think that the old-fashioned methods are still valid, like issuing a press release or briefing local journalists, we are not making the best use of the new tools that technology has put at our disposal.

For a diplomat, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become essential tools. One of the advantages is that communications can now be two-way.

By using social media, you can both pull and push information.

You can pull by tapping into the local debate on issues of immediate interest and concern. Social media brings you closer to the genuine voice of the people.

And you can push by broadcasting your government’s views on the latest issues, the newest products or the most attractive tourist destinations.

Pulling and pushing were behind the Twitter question and answer session I ran earlier this week. Our aim was to answer questions on a range of issues, political, economic and commercial, where the UK is actively involved in cooperating with Jordan.

We handled over 50 questions in just over one hour, tackling issues like Jerusalem, Syria, as well as lighter subjects, such as tourism in Jordan.

The session helped us understand Jordanians’ concerns and demonstrate the extent of our support for Jordan. We were able to show how we are building on traditional links to develop new areas of cooperation of benefit to both countries.

Of course, there are risks in addressing such questions on social media. The basic rules of diplomacy still apply.

A word out of place or an indiscreet comment can cause upset.

It is also very easy to be seen as a parrot for the official line, which would fail to capture the interest of a modern, fast-moving audience.

The best way to manage these risks is by being authentic, using your personal insights and interests, while preserving your privacy.

Tweets and pictures about my visits to different parts of Jordan or the pleasures of mansaf help to increase engagement.

A touch of humour works too: I couldn’t resist retweeting the headline “Jordan inspires England to victory”, even though the “Jordan” in question was an England cricketer.

Interaction is also important: using tweets to ask questions and responding to comments from others can generate a healthy debate.

But you have to know where to draw the line. For example, I cannot deal with visa issues or consular cases by Twitter. These are personal cases where public discourse is not appropriate.

To tweet or not to tweet?

The answer is a no-brainer in today’s fast-moving world.

Unlike 200 years ago, when news of an important military victory took a fortnight to reach decision makers, we are now expected to react to whatever is circulating on the Internet.

But if we do not engage and manage the risks, we will become irrelevant.

The writer is British ambassador to Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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