I always keep a look out for businesses and organisations that have embraced social media as part of their online strategy in Southeast Asia. The US Embassy here in Cambodia is one of those organisations that has fully incorporated social media into the way they now interact with their audience. Interested to find out how and why, I contacted embassy spokesperson Michelle Bennett. Here are the responses I received:
1. When did the US Embassy in Cambodia start using social media?
We joined Facebook on May 4th, 2009. We joined Twitter in July 2010, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of U.S./Cambodia diplomatic relations, but our account wasn’t active until we hired a Social Media Coordinator in March 2011.
2. What was the thinking behind the decision?
The U.S. Government as a whole realized we cannot just wait for people to find our websites and programs. We have to get out and engage with people on “sticky” sites where they are already spending time. Facebook is hugely popular in Cambodia, so that was a great place to start. If you talk to Cambodian youth, especially in urban areas, and ask them if they are on Facebook, they almost all say yes. We gave the decision to engage on Twitter a little more thought. A year ago, most active Twitter users in Cambodia were expats, which aren’t our typical target audience. But the Embassy in Phnom Penh felt we had a chance to get in on the discussion on the ground floor and help shape the narrative. In the last six months, about 80-85% of our new followers are Cambodian, and it seems the network is gaining momentum here.
3. Which social media platforms do you use?
4. Is there a separate social media department within the embassy?
Our social media team is part of the Public Affairs Office, which is the office in charge of sharing the Embassy’s messages with the Cambodian public.
5. What was the training process?
There are numerous social media trainings offered by the State Department for our employees. Some of our team has attended those trainings, but Twitter has mostly been self taught.
6. Do you have the autonomy to personally answer any questions people ask, or do you have to consult with other departments or a centralized body?
It depends on the question. If it is about a Public Affairs program, that is easy to answer within our section. If the question is about visas, we consult with the consular section.
If the question is about politics or policy, we may consult with the political section or the Ambassador. The Public Affairs Officer is the embassy spokesperson, and is one of only a few people in the embassy authorized to make public statements.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that despite social media’s casual style, everything we post is still the voice of the U.S. Embassy. We do try to answer every question we get, though sometimes we do so via direct messages if we don’t think a public response is necessary.
7. What benefits do you feel having a social media presence has brought the embassy?
The benefits are numerous. With a click of a button, we have the ability to reach almost 30,000 people.
So if we want to share information about American culture, or an upcoming event, or scholarship opportunities, we have a platform in which to do that. It also offers a platform for our followers to ask us questions. Ten years ago, it would be very difficult for a Battambang resident to ask a question of the U.S. Embassy. Now that person can get on their smart phone and send us a question in a matter of seconds.
Social media also offers a chance to connect with our Cambodian audience multiple times a day. While that connection might usually be very brief, it can have a big impact on the individual. Think about the student who hears about a semester scholarship in the United States via Facebook. She applies to the program, is selected, and has an amazing study abroad experience. When she returns to Cambodia, she not only brings those skills and experiences with her, she is now part of our State alumni group (FUSAAC), and has a built in network for support, jobs and new friends.
Our favorite interactions on social media are those which lead to face-to-face conversations.
8. How do you choose what to tweet about and what to post on the Facebook page? How often do you liaise with other departments?
The content is mostly derived from the manager of the specific social media platform. We try to represent the various interests of the U.S. Government here in Cambodia. So if Peace Corps or USAID has a program to share, we’ll post information about that. As well, we send links to interesting and relevant articles coming out of our headquarters in Washington D.C. or from local news sources.
Screening of “An Inconvenient Truth” @ Embassy on April 26. See our Facebook page for a chance to attend: goo.gl/gs2i7
— US Embassy Cambodia (@USEmbPhnomPenh) April 4, 2012
9. What challenges have you faced having a social media presence?
Social media, if not managed well, can be a real drain on human resources. It does take a substantial amount of staff time and energy to maintain a social media presence. Our thought is, if you do it halfway, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. In order to be successful, an organization must commit the necessary resources. The challenge is finding the right balance between social media and the numerous other aspects of our jobs.
10. How are you working with other organisations to promote social media use in Cambodia?
Last Thursday, we led a seminar for NGOs on how to use Twitter called Twitter Talks (#TwitterTalks). We’ve done these for university students before to introduce them to this platform, but this was the first time targeting NGOs. To help the conversation from an NGO perspective, we partnered with The Pari Project, who was able to answer questions like “Should your organization commit to this?” looking at what the target audience is, and then how to direct tweets towards that audience. For our part we spoke about the nuts and bolts of how to use Twitter and third party applications (including using some of your advice on scheduling tweets). The day went very well, and all of the participants will be moving forward using Twitter with a better understanding of the time commitment required to use the medium correctly.
11. Do you use any third party tools to monitor your Twitter and Facebook campaigns?
The US Embassy on Twitter: Follow @USEmbPhnomPenh
The US Embassy on Facebook: Subscribe
I particularly like the way the US State Department has realised the value of having an individual social media campaign in each of the countries in which it is present. Other organisations and businesses I know in this region have been hesitant to recognise social media as a viable tool as they see it as being too hard (and risky) to leave the voice of the company to an individual or local department. The US Embassy has shown that this can be achieved both effectively and professionally.