Charles A. Ray, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, has learned the value of social media in helping him perform his job.
Never mind the fact that Ray could be speaking to the Internet and say, whimsically, “I remember when you were born.” He’s come up with innovative ways to connect with an digitally-savvy generation of young Zimbabweans, who are increasingly active on the internet via 3G-enabled mobile phones. After all, the core elements of his position are the same as many jobs in social media: outreach, engagement and promotion.
When the ruling ZANU-PF party blocked the U.S. Embassy from conducting a meeting with local young adults living outside the capital Harare, Ray took the meetings digital. By switching to Facebook as a means of hosting the meeting, he believes he got a bigger audience than if the meetings had been conducted offline.
The Ambassador also encourages Zimbabweans to write on the Embassy’s Facebook page and to tweet him directly, so that he may respond to any questions they have.
“I answer their questions and sometimes ask my own; but, more importantly, I engage them in conversation and I listen to what they have to say,” writes Ray. “The fact that young Zimbabweans are seeking us out at the rate of 25-40 new followers per day is testament to the effectiveness of this method of communication.”
Those are impressive numbers for a country with only about 10% of its total population having regular access to the Internet. However, that percentage has doubled since 2004 as wireless networks become more prevalent throughout Africa, thanks to their comparatively low cost compared to a cable network.
Ray has created an online community where locals can receive direct answers from a top American official. That dialogue has contributed to a greater understanding of one another. Young Zimbabweans have gained a greater understanding of the Embassy’s role and of the United States, while Ray and his staff staff have better learned about the needs and concerns of the people they serve.
According to Ray, many of the Zimbabweans who connect with the Embassy digitally are younger citizens who are “often ignored.” Giving them the means to express themselves and engage in a two-way dialogue empowers them and makes them more confident in their own voice and their own ideals.
This is vital to the work of an Ambassador in a country with such a tight grip on free speech and civic life.
By circumventing the ruling party’s restrictions on his physical movement and opening an authentic, two-way dialogue online, Ambassador Ray has given us another means by which social media can connect people and ideas. He, and other digitally-empowered statesmen, have developed a new tool in the diplomat’s supply. International Relations is increasingly happening online, changing the way soft power diplomacy is carried out.
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