12th January 2018 Vienna, Austria
Why we do social media
I recently attended the annual diplomatic reception for ambassadors given by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. Result: a minor social media storm.
Why? And why was this a good thing?
The President’s annual diplomatic reception has taken place for years; someone recently sent me a picture of Kaiser Franz Josef meeting the diplomatic corps at a similar event.
Five years ago, my Danish colleague, Ambassador Liselotte Plesner, decided to demonstrate Danish virtues, including lateral thinking, ecological awareness and love of bicycles, by cycling from her embassy to the reception – an event to which most ambassadors travel in an official car with driver. This was such a success that she later invited other ambassadorial colleagues to join the ride, attracting much media attention.
This is a fine example of an ambassador doing something intrinsically worthwhile which also highlights the virtues of the country which she or he represents.
When I arrived in Vienna in 2016 Liselotte invited me to join the bike ride to the reception and I joined up. A photo of me with my bike on the way to the reception in the snow was warmly received in Vienna.
— Leigh Turner (@LeighTurnerFCO) February 2, 2017
Come January 2018, the weather was so wet that we considered calling the bike ride off; but as it was Liselotte’s final year here; given that Danes and Brits at least are used to cycling in the rain; and since Austrian state broadcaster ORF had expressed an interest in reporting the ride, we went ahead.
The invitation to the President’s reception specified dress code as lounge suit or national dress. So I decided to wear a kilt which I inherited from my father in 2013 (I also have a Scottish great grandmother).
The results were good. Thanks to great media work by the Danes, the ORF camera team filmed Liselotte, myself and my Italian colleague Sergio Barbanti setting off from the Danish Embassy and arriving at the presidential palace. We tweeted about the event; and our efforts were turbo-charged when the President himself (a former Green politician) sent out a tweet with a thirteen second clip of the three of us arriving at the Hofburg on our bikes in the rain.
— A. Van der Bellen (@vanderbellen) January 10, 2018
ORF also carried a report on their early evening magazine programme; and the whole event generated a huge amount of positive media coverage.
Why do we do this stuff? There are several answers:
- drawing attention to the positive attributes of your country is intrinsically a good thing. Using traditional and social media to amplify your message makes good sense
- you may also be able to draw attention to other specific messages. For example, by wearing my kilt, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the British Embassy in Vienna represents the entire United Kingdom; that we have some terrific traditions in Scotland and elsewhere; and that the UK offers a host of fabulous tourist destinations;
- arguably, highlighting the fact that ambassadors are human beings doing a job rather than an alien and mysterious species ferried from building to building in luxurious limousines itself sends a good message;
- by using the attention raised by riding bikes, we were able to highlight policy issues. Thus, on the day of the reception and the day afterwards, I tweeted about my meeting with the leader of the Austrian NEOS party, Matthias Strolz; about my role as an international gender champion at the UN; about the boom in British manufacturing and exports; about the UK remaining part of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ until the end of the programmes; and about UK support for the Iran nuclear deal. I also published a blog on how the UK is helping the UN Office on Drugs and Crime fight corruption. All these messages received a boost as the result of our other social media engagement. Liselotte tells me that her own related social media activity – on Russian aggression in Ukraine – also received above-average traction following the bike ride.
- use of social media can also help bring on board traditional media. In addition to the ORF report on the bike ride by the three of us, Austria’s largest newspaper, the “Kronen Zeitung”, ran a piece highlighting my #keenonwien series of tweets and Instagram posts; while another mass circulation newspaper, “Heute”, did a story on my kilt-wearing and bicycle-riding proclivities. Next time we are thinking to gain the attention of the media for a UK-related story, all these contacts should help.
P.S. this was the first time I had ever cycled in a kilt, let alone in a rainstorm, so I did a trial run before breakfast. It turns out the kilt is ideal cycling garb; and that wet knees are better than wet trousers.