World leaders on Twitter: you’re doing it wrong

There are two ways a world leader can embrace social media: Hand over accounts to pros, or explore, blunder and waste precious time doing it on your own


Twiplomacy Study 2015, the annual report on world leaders’ use of Twitter just published by public relations firm Burson Marsteller, only names four major politicians who do their own tweeting. Photo: AFP
Twiplomacy Study 2015, the annual report on world leaders’ use of Twitter just published by public relations firm Burson Marsteller, only names four major politicians who do their own tweeting. Photo: AFP

There are two ways a world leader can embrace social media: Hand over the Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. accounts to pros, or explore, blunder and waste precious time doing it on your own. The ministers and heads of state who choose the second path are more attractive to followers looking for interesting content — but their social strategies aren’t necessarily the most successful.

Twiplomacy Study 2015, the annual report on world leaders’ use of Twitter just published by public relations firm Burson Marsteller, only names four major politicians who do their own tweeting. These include:

1. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. I arranged an interview with him using Twitter, but I mostly follow him for his excellent links to news stories about the post-Soviet world and Estonian tech.

2. European Council president Donald Tusk. The former Polish prime minister has a boring official account and a livelier personal one.

Tusk rarely uses it but there are occasional gems:

3. Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics (an official account that a flunky could easily support. I won’t even bore you with any of his tweets).

4. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Her tweets are mostly in Norwegian and not too original. Nonetheless, the Twiplomacy Study deems her the second “most conversational” leader on Twitter after Rwandan President Paul Kagame. This is because 73% of her tweets are replies to other users.

That’s pretty much it. Some true Twitter stars who had been unafraid to post their opinions and even reveal bits of their private lives — former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt — lost their jobs in recent elections, and there are no newcomers capable of entering the Twitter universe with a bang, as Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders did in 2009:

So, even when political leaders and top officials do their own tweeting, their posts are mostly boring. Even Rwanda’s Kagame, who talks to his citizenry on Twitter incessantly, has a penchant for platitudes. Here’s a typical post from him:

So why do they do it? Are they just wasting their time?

Amazingly, it works. In a paper published this year, Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan studied the Twitter strategy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, with almost 12 million followers, is the third most followed politician in the world after US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

Narendra Modi had the most retweeted post in Indian history when he won the national election almost a year ago:

It was downhill from there. Modi’s account is devoted to listing obscure meetings, a sprinkling of condolences to the victims of disasters and stiff official photos.

Tweets from a global leader such as Modi are the equivalent of nods, smiles and handshakes. They may mean little to most readers, but they can be subtle messages to just a few important recipients — who won’t necessarily even read the tweets, but will be informed of them by their social networking staff.

Kagame or Solberg, with their propensity to answer voters, don’t say anything interesting to them, but they spread a good feeling by bestowing a moment of their attention on an ordinary person. Most people see leaders as special people who aren’t supposed to express their character, get angry or sad, peruse news sites or polemicize. They are mainly expected to radiate confidence and provide a positive example.

That perception makes tweeting inanities worthwhile for leaders. Their accounts hardly even follow anyone else.

Still, I relish the opportunities to get more out of them. Last year, when a hacker hijacked Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter handle to say, impersonating Medvedev, that he was resigning to become a freelance photographer because he was shamed of what the Russian government was doing, I couldn’t help but wish leaders used Twitter to say things like this. Perhaps someday a head of state will come along who will follow the example of Jose Antonio Rodriguez, the mayor of the small Spanish town of Jun.

Meanwhile, I much prefer German chancellor Angela Merkel’s artless refusal to lend her name to a Twitter feed — alone among Group of Seven leaders — to the cynical embrace of technology that is meant for more meaningful interaction than leaders are willing to engage in publicly. Bloomberg

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