“Our experience (of Social Media) with the Public Diplomacy division has been transformational, and given the events in Egypt and Libya, we have to be there,” Navdeep Suri, Joint Secretary (PD), Ministry of External Affairs, said at the Gov 2.0 conference held in Delhi last week. Suri said that the image of India’s foreign office has been that they’re “fuddy duddy”, and they joined Twitter and Facebook with the intent of building a positive narrative about india, development partnerships, and create Friends of India communities via facebook.” More importantly, it was about communicating quickly, setting the agenda, get feedback and improve the interface between government and citizens: a focus on greater responsiveness and accountability. “We started with Twitter in July, and have 7000 followers. We got reactions spontaneously, many of them positive and welcoming because people had low expectations from government. We were the pilot (project) for the Department of Information Technology,” he added.

The Libya Experience

“The Libya experience,” Suri said, “has shown that it has worked very well for us. While the Facebook experience has worked better than Twitter experience (in terms of the positive responses), we used Twitter for utility during emergencies. (During the Libya evacuation), we put up over 300 tweets, the Foreign Secretary (Nirupama Rao) became the first senior official to join twitter. We used it to sent the agenda and be the first to put out factual information, rather than interpretation. Credibility needs to be key for us, and we need to be quick but also correct and authoritative. A gentleman in Chennai contacted us, saying that his father was stuck in Misratah, at the Libyan Iron and Steel company. I sent him a message to send us more details, and we were able to get people evacuated based on his information.”

Editor’s note: Foreign Secretary Rao is now using Twitter to communicate directly to users about what the Ministry is doing following the Japan earthquake:

On Negative Tweets, Abuse & Positive Feedback: Is It Worth It?

Suri said that they get a lot of negative tweets as well as unnecessary abuse. “It was a concern mentioned to us by colleagues. It isn’t your best wakeup call, when you see abuse first thing in the morning. We’ve made the choice of ignoring, but not blocking. Some are too far off the bend to engage in rational discourse, but we’ve been gratified that people have moderated their opinions a bit. I understand part of it,” he said, because people have a prima facie opinion that we’re morons, but the call for maturity is all round. My response is that I’m listening, and ‘can we have a civilized conversation?’.

But people also thank them when they make a difference: Suri showcased some responses the Ministry had received – a twitter user had thanked them because his sister was able to return to India from Libya because of their efforts. Suri said that he personally finds the experience “hugely gratifying”, because “We’ve never had such an experience before.”

Photo: courtesy Gov2.in website