Indian diplomacy wants to reinvent itself, virtually

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS
Sunday, December 12, 2010

NEW DELHI - India’s foreign ministry - the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) - is now in a major exercise to “reinvent” itself, moving away from its perceived ivory tower existence to occupying a more interactive space on public platforms across the multimedia communication space.

In the last six months, the Twitter account, ‘Indiandiplomacy’ has sent out 186 tweets and gathered over 4,400 followers. The YouTube channel has been uploaded with 31 video clips of commissioned documentaries.

After a soft launch, the Facebook page, run by MEA’s public diplomacy (PD) division, now posts two to three updates each day - with photographs and events of exhibitions, talks and festivals from Indian missions across the world.

“We have traditionally tended to adopt a fairly conservative approach towards publicising our own work and this, almost by default, leaves the field open for negative stories of which there is never a dearth,” Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao admitted in her speech on a seminar on public diplomacy on Friday.

But, no more, the ministry hopes.

From a Kathak performance at the closing festival of India in Bangladesh to a solemn ceremony at the Arc d’ Triumph or a children’s drawing competition for communal harmony in Baku - there is now a single ‘wall’ to display activities of Indian missions and consulates around the world.

First it was only the MEA’s PD division, which came into the world of Twitter, Facebook and related ilk - but now even embassies and cultural centres have started to follow in their footsteps, registering their presence on social networking platforms.

The Embassy of India in Paris has its own Facebook page, as does the Indira Gandhi cultural Centre in Dhaka.

About two weeks ago, an India-Latin Friendship and Business group was created on Facebook by the livewire Indian ambassador to Argentina, R. Viswanathan, with 93 members posting in both Spanish and English on subjects related from visits by business delegations to notice of an Argentine musician’s concert in Varanasi.

According to senior MEA officials, thing have started to fall in place on the social media front, with missions now understanding the need to keep the site updated with regular posts.

“Though, of course, while some embassies are very proactive, but others have not been so,” an official admitted to IANS, not wishing to be named.

In fact, the ministry is considering ways to inculcate social media skill sets in the mid-level training of officials, especially those on foreign posting. “Slowly, we want different missions to have their own presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter. We also want them to be part of the process so that posting on Twitter or sending material for Facebook becomes routine,” said an official.

They are also planning to introduce similar modules in the training of IFS probationers.

Not all social media tools are of course equal. The ministry has so far been very successful on Twitter, but Facebook, with its multiple uploads and link interfaces, requires more sustained hardwork.

“We launched the Facebook page softly, but now it is gathering traction,” he said.

Most of them have been statements, speeches or agreements, which are then forwarded or re-tweeted through the twitterverse. But, officials understand that there is also a need to engage with Twitter users, with all its possible pitfalls, rather than just being a delivery mechanism for government information.

“We have found that often if you listen to another person, and respond, the level of hostility often goes down drastically,” said Navdeep Suri, MEA’s joint secretary (public diplomacy), who is the moving force behind the move to reach out to newer and younger audiences through new media and social networking.

For example, he referred to India’s assistance to Pakistan after its devastating floods, which led to a very aggressive reception from several Twitter users. “But, once we engaged with them, there was a perceptible cooling down in their hostility,” he said.

Rao outlined the emerging contours of public diplomacy to meet emerging foreign policy changes and said Indian diplomats, including its spokespersons, needed to change with the times.

“As our foreign policy interests and strategic perspectives become more sharply honed, as our global presence becomes much more visible, as India’s re-emergence grasps the world’s attention, and as our economy becomes one of the international frontrunners in terms of its accelerated growth rate, India’s voice must be heard in multiple situations, before diverse audiences, and the task to fulfil this will be that of its diplomats who must be ever active in the tasks of advocating and explaining the Indian ‘brand’ as it were, because this is a compelling narrative surrounding the world’s largest democracy, that must be heard,” Rao said.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at [email protected])

Filed under: Diplomacy

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