Using 'Social Diplomacy' to Reach Russians

Utilizing new media in public diplomacy is vital in countries like Russia, where government control of most broadcast media often distorts the message from Washington.

BY ROBERT KOENIG

Almost as soon as a Russian court convicted activist Alexei Navalny of embezzlement, on highly dubious grounds, in July 2013, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted his disappointment at the “apparent political motivations in this trial.”

Within minutes that comment echoed across Russia’s social media landscape, eventually generating nearly 1,000 retweets and getting picked up by numerous media outlets. “Everyone was checking McFaul’s Twitter account and quoting what he said,” recalls Elena Chernenko, a foreign desk correspondent for Kommersant, one of Moscow’s major daily newspapers.

In recent years, Twitter and other social media have emerged as a lightning-fast, pointed alternative to traditional tactics of public diplomacy. Supplementing their usual portfolios, U.S. diplomats are being encouraged by the State Department to use both local and global social media tools, with hundreds of embassy Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts now attracting millions of followers worldwide.


Ambassador Michael McFaul (center) talks with young Russian social media leaders and bloggers on the patio during a June 2013 session at his Moscow residence.

“The role of new media in public diplomacy has gone from virtually non-existent to standard practice,” says a State Department description of the “21st-Century Statecraft” initiative launched by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Amb. McFaul, who speaks Russian well, is mindful of how important it is to communicate primarily in a nation’s own language.

The “social diplomacy” approach has proven to be especially important in countries like Russia, where government control of most broadcast media often distorts the message from Washington and news coverage about U.S. events and policies. Even though tweets are mere 140-character bursts of information—one might call them policy haikus—they can offer a platform for clear, concise messages that reach a target audience without passing through the restrictive and distorting filters of government-controlled media.

Diplomats Join the “Twitterati”

When he became ambassador to Russia in January 2012, McFaul—a Stanford University professor who had never before tweeted or blogged—moved quickly to adopt social media. Having served as the National Security Council’s Russia specialist from 2009 to 2011, McFaul set out to implement cutting-edge White House communications techniques as part of the “21st-Century Statecraft” approach.

During his first country team meeting in Moscow, Amb. McFaul—only the second non-career diplomat in three decades to serve in that position—told the section heads gathered in the embassy’s chancery that “this post is going to be focused on public diplomacy.” With more and more Russians turning to social media for news and commentary, McFaul argues that social media offers “a fast way to get out information, correct the record and engage Russians.”

In less than two years, he has attracted more than 55,000 Twitter followers and 13,000 Facebook friends or subscribers. Foreign Policy included McFaul among the top-10 diplomats and politicians in its “Twitterati 100” list, putting him in the company of the pope and Hillary and Bill Clinton, and describing his message as “live and occasionally uncensored.” A Russian rating agency ranked the American ambassador among the country’s most-quoted bloggers.


Members of Embassy Moscow’s social media team discuss the embassy’s Twitter page. They are: Assistant Information Officer Betsy Meyer (seated) and social media assistants Lada Krasilnikova (pointing) and Anna Romanenko (at right).

However, that high profile doesn’t necessarily translate into popularity. Amb. McFaul moved into Spaso House at about the same time that Vladimir Putin reoccupied the office of president—and U.S.-Russian relations got noticeably cooler. Even though McFaul had championed the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia at the NSC, he was the subject of what the Washington Post described as “protracted harassment” when he first arrived in Moscow.

Social media are a supplement to, not a substitute for, face-to-face meetings and other aspects of traditional public diplomacy.

State-supported anti-Americanism has been on the rise in the Russian media, as part of what one U.S. analyst describes as a “massive propaganda campaign” that has seen the 2012 expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development and major civil-society nongovernmental organizations; the Duma’s rush to pass a law banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans; and claims that the State Department had helped organize protests against the alleged falsification of legislative election results in 2011.

That campaign has caused Russian attitudes toward the United States to deteriorate. A survey this past September found that the proportion of Russians who view the United States favorably was just 41 percent, compared with 61 percent a year before. Faced with that trend and the Kremlin’s tightening controls on the Russian media, Embassy Moscow has been seeking new ways to get out its message.

Surveys have indicated that more than two-thirds of Russians get most of their news from television reports, and the Kremlin keeps the national TV networks under strict supervision, including coverage of the United States that is frequently biased. While some newspapers and a few FM radio stations provide more balanced coverage, their audiences tend to be limited—reaching mainly young and educated readers, and listeners in large cities.


Amb. McFaul responds to a question (projected onto the screen) during a Twitter Q&A session at Embassy Moscow on Nov. 29. To his left is Deputy Press Attaché Stacy Mactaggert.

That leaves social media, whose use has grown tremendously in Russia over the last few years, as perhaps the best approach to avoid Kremlin distortions and communicate directly with the people. Russia has the largest digital audience in Europe, with one survey finding that the proportion of Russians using the Internet jumped from 5 percent in 2001 to 60 percent in 2013.

Nearly every section of Embassy Moscow produces regular social media content.

During that period, the Russian blogosphere mushroomed to more than 14 million blogs featuring a wide variety of viewpoints, including some from outspoken critics of the Kremlin. The vast social media audience is varied, but its most enthusiastic participants are younger, well-educated Russians who enjoy platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogs.

Engaging the Twitterverse

At Embassy Moscow, Amb. McFaul encouraged nearly every section to produce regular social media content, and the economic, cultural, consular, political, environment and science staff have all emerged as regular contributors to the embassy’s blogs and Twitter feeds.

While Facebook tends to be reserved for a “soft diplomacy” approach, policy-related themes are often discussed in blogs linked to tweets. The public affairs staff wants to set up an embassy account with Russia’s most popular social media network, VKontakte, but intellectual property issues have so far prevented that step.

“We try to respond quickly and get our voice into the first round of news stories on major issues,” says the embassy’s press attaché, Joseph Kruzich. He leads a press staff of four Americans and nine Locally Engaged Staff members, several of whom focus on social media and messaging. They have re-energized the embassy’s once-sleepy Twitter account, which now reaches more than 15,000 followers, and revamped its Facebook page to appeal more to younger Russians.

Some of the ambassador’s tweets—most of which he drafts himself, others with the support of the social media staff—reach an estimated half-million people during a 24-hour news cycle, offering personal comments on his family, music, sports and Russian history. He also makes a point of responding to some tweets and, at times, correcting errors or questionable assertions.

“One of the things that makes Amb. McFaul’s account stand out is that he responds regularly to his followers,” observes Breton Boudreaux, the social media coordinator for the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. “If someone says something controversial, he isn’t afraid to weigh in. He also has a tough skin. Followers personally attack him, yet he keeps on doing what he is doing.”

McFaul got plenty of positive and negative comments when he sent a tweet in 2012 criticizing the unusually harsh sentencing of the Pussy Riot punk-rock performers. His comments were picked up widely in the traditional media, as well.

Over the past year Embassy Moscow has used social media effectively to handle various public diplomacy challenges, including Russia’s grant of asylum to Edward Snowden, the White House cancellation of a planned Moscow summit, U.S.-Russian disagreements over responding to the chemical weapons attack in Syria, and some prominent human rights cases in Russia.

A dependable lightning rod for social media commentary has been Moscow lawyer, corruption-fighter and political activist Alexei Navalny—once described by the Wall Street Journal as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most” in politics. So it was no surprise that the Russian Twitterverse exploded after McFaul’s “apparent political motivations” critique. It became one of the most retweeted comments of the year and was widely quoted in traditional Russian media, as well.

Such tweets on news developments or controversial issues are the most popular among Russian journalists and social-media followers. But by necessity, much of the embassy’s social media tends to focus on drier policy issues.

Stagnation is a no-no in social diplomacy, so building the embassy’s audience remains a priority in a country where there are millions of potential—but often fickle—followers.

While McFaul and the embassy often tweet links that can also be found on the State Department site, journalist Elena Chernenko points out that the ambassador “also tweets lots of interesting insights or comments that are not found anywhere else.” EUR’s Breton Boudreaux speculates that the tweets’ “mix of policy with some insights into his personal life makes him a real human being” for many Russians.

McFaul, who speaks Russian well, is mindful of how important it is to communicate primarily in a nation’s own language. So he makes a point of sending out most of his tweets, many of his Facebook posts and all of his blog posts in Russian. The embassy’s site has followed that example, as well, translating almost all tweets. While McFaul does occasionally make grammatical mistakes, followers have told him that those small errors actually lend authenticity to his posts.

A Supplement, Not a Substitute

Even though he is a strong believer in the effectiveness of social media platforms in public diplomacy, the ambassador acknowledges limits to their effectiveness. “Finding the correct balance between personal and professional matters is one of the toughest challenges to using these new tools effectively,” he says.

The lines between public and private tend to blur in social media, and Amb. McFaul has found that personal information generates the most ‘likes’ on Facebook and questions from Twitter followers. This is especially evident when he mixes personal observations with wider public policy discussions on his blog (http://m-mcfaul.livejournal.com/).

After the Russian Duma adopted a law to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans late in 2012, for example, the ambassador complained that the sensational and, at times, misleading news coverage of a Russian child’s death in Texas had been an unfortunate factor in the legislative debate.

Recounting the positive experiences of more than 60,000 Russian children adopted over the years by American parents, McFaul wrote: “It is time for sensational exploitations of human tragedy to end and for professional work between our two countries to grow, on this issue and many others.”

Both McFaul and Kruzich emphasize that social media are merely a supplement to, not a substitute for, face-to-face meetings and other aspects of traditional public diplomacy. But Kruzich views it as an advance over the slower, press-release/news conference strategy that often is ignored by, or takes longer to be mentioned in, the Russian media. For a February 2013 social media campaign to counter anti-U.S. coverage, the embassy sent tweets for 28 straight days emphasizing positive developments in bilateral relations, ranging from nuclear security to cultural exchanges.

Increasingly, Russian journalists are treating such rapid-fire Twitter exchanges among diplomats as fodder for stories. Still, as Chernenko cautions, social media are “not a replacement for traditional reporting. There is so much unproven information” that needs to be fact-checked.

This is particularly true when some of it comes from the Russian government’s own social media sites, which have been trying to catch up to the global “social diplomacy” trend. One of the most aggressive practitioners has been the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After Amb. McFaul highlighted the Russian role in pressing the Kyrgyz government to order U.S. forces out of an air base there, the MFA responded by launching a Twitter offensive accusing McFaul of “meddling” in Russian affairs.

In response, the ambassador used his LiveJournal blog to explain that his comments had been a side issue, and noted that he’d mainly intended his speech at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics to highlight the progress made in U.S.-Russian relations on some key issues. That helped quiet the flap.

After that social-media exchange, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt—another member of Foreign Policy’s “Twitterati 100”—sent a tweet saying the MFA had “launched a Twitter war” against McFaul. Wrote Bildt: “That’s the new world: followers instead of nukes. Better.”

The goal of most players in that new world is to recruit such virtual followers, and Embassy Moscow’s public affairs staff is looking for new ways to build its audience in 2014. That will include public diplomacy initiatives focused on two major events at the Russian resort and conference center of Sochi: the Winter Olympics in February and the Group of Eight summit there in early June.

Stagnation is a no-no in social diplomacy, so building the embassy’s audience remains a priority in a country where there are millions of potential—but often fickle—followers. A pundit once called Twitter “a human seismograph.” The challenge is to move the needle in the desired direction.


Robert L. Koenig was a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency from 1980 to 1981, serving in Germany. He then left the Service to return to journalism, covering various national and international events including the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (The next year, the National Press Club honored him for his reporting on that seminal event.) He continued to work as a journalist during the posting of his FSO wife, Mary Ellen Koenig, in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa. Now an Eligible Family Member, he works as an assistant information officer in Moscow, where she is cultural affairs officer.