While foreign policy is undergoing a phase of adaptation to social media and digital tools, governments around the world are exploring new innovative ways to engage with their citizens in case of emergencies. This was the focus of a panel discussion last night at the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC on “Digital Diplomacy, Social Media, and Crisis Communications,” organized in collaboration with the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, as part of the 2013 Year of Italian Culture in the US.
“Technology and innovative ideas have changed the way we provide assistance to our citizens, but also redefined how we reshape our communication strategies towards the public,” said Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero in his introductory remarks. “We’re not talking only about Twitter and Facebook. In this area, digital diplomacy has now gone well beyond the realm of social media. It is an area that is evolving very rapidly but that needs additional research, training, and implementation.”
Embassies in the Nation’s Capital are now focusing on ways to harness technology and social media not only to broadcast their message but also to provide better services to the public. Clearly, technology is offering new opportunities, especially in the area of crisis communication, where being connected and able to receive feedbacks from the ground is crucial in order to provide assistance.
Richard Boly, Director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the US Department of State, highlighted how social media and technologies, including micro-tasking platforms and wikis, can help bureaucracies coordinate internally, while civil society free agents “are moving at the speed of electrons on the outside during a crisis.”
While coordination and being able to sync with fast-moving events are key, all three panelists, including Laura Howe of the American Red Cross and Robert Baker of Ushahidi, agreed on the importance of listening in order to be able to provide and coordinate assistance, as well as verify the large amount of information that digital tool can create.
The Italian Embassy has been very proactive in this field and has been studying new ways to connect with Italian citizens residents in the US or travelling around the country. “Not only in cases of emergencies and natural disasters — stressed Ambassador Bisogniero — but also when we need to scale our communication during special times.” An example was during Hurricane Sandy, when the Embassy used Twitter extensively and very successfully. But also in the past parliamentary elections in Italy, as the Embassy had to communicate voting procedures and deadlines to the hundreds of thousand of Italian voters residing in the US who were using absentee ballots.