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How World Leaders use Social Media: Why the @WhiteHouse doesn’t follow @BarackObama & other idiosyncrasies

Guest post by Matthias Lüfkens, Associate Director of Media, World Economic Forum – Follow him on Twitter

Twitter is redefining the way we communicate – and that includes our world leaders: 15 of the G20 governments use it. But the question is who follows who, who doesn’t follow who, and do world leaders even realize the diplomatic significance of their tweets and Twitter friendships?

Barack Obama was the first to use the micro-blogging service to communicate with his electorate in 2008. His Twitter account @BarackObama, is now the most followed of all world-leader accounts, with 7.4 million followers (only @LadyGaga, @JustinBieber and @BritneySpears have more!) Twenty-eight different world leaders follow @BarackObama, yet notably the @WhiteHouse – the US government’s official Twitter account – doesn’t. Is this because the White House appreciates that the @BarackObama account was set up by Obama for America committee with one sole purpose in mind – to win him the US presidency?

Or is it simply a classic case – not atypical – of a world leader not quite appreciating the art of Twitter diplomacy? Twitter connections between world leaders say so much about current diplomatic relations, and while world leaders are starting to ‘make friends’ on social networks, they are not all mutually following each other. The Australian prime minister (@JuliaGillard) doesn’t return the follow of her counterpart in New Zealand (@JohnKeyPM), Israel’s prime minister Benjamin @Netanyahu doesn’t return Palestine’s friendship (@PMFayyad): look closely and these are but two of dozens of diplomatic faux pas on the Twitter social network.

Like it or lump it, Twitter has become a key tool in political communication and heads of states and government need to learn how to use it – fast.

What does it take for governments to understand this?

It took a ghastly natural and human disaster to jolt the Japanese government into action. Within two days of the tsunami hitting the northeastern coast of Japan, the Prime Minister’s office started to tweet in both Japanese (@Kantei_Saigai) and English (@JPN_PMO). The aim was to provide “updates on the situation of the Tohoku-Pacific Ocean Earthquake” and debunk false rumors about radioactive contamination: “The amount of radiation detected in the milk would be as much as a single CT scan if consumed continually for a year.”

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister also tweeted not-so-reassuring tips: “How to protect yourself from radiation exposure when you have to go out in the area within 20~30 km radius from the nuclear plants” “1) When going out, use cars as much as possible to avoid exposure to air. 2) Wear a mask, gloves, & long sleeve shirts. 3) Avoid exposure to rain.” This third tip provoked such a panic that a fourth tweet was sent the next day to defuse the fear the previous tweet had provoked: ”There is no risk to human health, even if it rains. Please rest assured.”

Scooping the Press

The German government joined Twitter on 28 February 2011 using its official spokesperson, former evening news TV presenter Steffen Seibert: “Good day, news about the federal government as of today via Twitter. Follow me at @RegSprecher. Your Steffen Seibert.” The next day he promised “to tweet once a day”, adding “dialogue is time consuming.”

@RegSprecher reports on the meetings and speeches of Chancellor Angela Merkel (she herself does not tweet) and commendably makes time to answer critical questions from his 22.000 followers. Yet when he scooped his own press department in March 2011, prematurely announcing the Chancellor’s visit to the US in June, he attracted the wrath of the government press corps. Steffen Seibert’s apologetic reaction: My tweets are not to circumvent the journalists, but an outreach to others.

The German government spokesperson is doing a great job using Twitter to communicate, yet Twitter diplomacy is clearly an acquired art not everyone gets first time around.

A Two-Way Conversation

Truth is, traditional media has lost the monopoly it once enjoyed on questions to our world leaders. And politicians, in turn, are beginning to understand the power of Twitter that allows them to communicate directly with their electorate: Before his first press briefing, White House @PressSec Jay Carney asked his followers: If you were a member of the White House press corps, what question would you ask? This was a clear attempt by Carney to incorporate questions from Twitter in his daily briefing.

In January 2011 the Twitter team of South African president, Jacob Zuma, asked for input for his State of the Nation address: How can we improve the lives of all South Africans? This is your platform, the President is listening. #SONA2011. Later in his address on 11 February 2011, he thanked “all South Africans who contributed to this State of the Nation address through mainstream media, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as direct contact”. His #SONA2011 speech ended up in Twitter’s trending topics.

In Canada, as part of the election campaign, leader of the Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (@M_Ignatieff) and Prime Minister Harper (@PMHarper) trade 140-character blows in a Twitter exchange about their possible TV debate. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger meanwhile conducts regular Twitter interviews with his followers (For the next 20 min I will take questions from my Twitter crew. Start asking! ).

Twitter Diplomacy

What most governments haven’t grasped yet is how they can connect with each other through Twitter, creating something of a Twitter Diplomacy. A couple of weeks ago President Obama visited Brazil, Chile and El Salvador – three countries whose presidents use Twitter – as part of ‘relationship-building spring break’. Yet in digital-connection terms, it yielded few results: The @WhiteHouse made friends on Twitter with Chilean president @SebastianPinera, but not with Brazilian president Dilma Roussef (@DilmaBR) and Salvadorian President @MauricioFunesSV.

World leaders are testing Twitter but clearly have a long way to go. Below are some pointers on how leaders can use Twitter more effectively and successfully.

On Twitter

– 7 out of 8 G8 leaders
– 15 out of 20 G20 leaders
– 19 out of 27 EU countries

Lost Opportunity

Of the 62 world leaders from 49 countries that use Twitter, only 25 mutually follow at least one other leader. This means there are just 300 connections between them at the moment, but there could be 6162.


What Twitter account?

As @BarackObama and @DilmaBR have shown, personal accounts are useful during election campaigns.

But presidents and prime ministers come and go. Governments need an institutional account independent of its occupant such as @BlueHouseKorea, @JPN_PMO, @KremlinRussia, @Number10gov, @Presidencia, @PresidencyZA, @WhiteHouse.

Combining name with position (such as Canada’s Stephen Harper, @PMHarper and New Zealand’s @JohnKeyPM) can work. But come defeat, account names need to be changed. Take former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who had to change his account from @KevinRuddPM to @KevinRuddMP.

Who to Follow?

Don”t automatically follow everyone who follows you – it simply proves you’re not listening to those you follow (@BarackObama and @Number10gov did so in the early days and continue to follow 700.000 and 460.000 tweeps respectively – No way they can read all those tweets!).

Follow all 62 other heads of state and government currently on Twitter (Portuguese President Aníbal @PRCavacoSilva is the only world leader to do this). Do not exclude anyone: The @WhiteHouse follows the Russian president (@MedvedevRussiaE), Chilean president @SebastianPinera and David Cameron (@Number10gov), but ignores just about every other world leader including immediate neighbours, Canada’s Stephen @PMHarper and Mexican president @FelipeCalderon. There is no logic to this.

Follow your peers: In Chile the entire government has been put on Twitter and its 22 ministers are all mutually following each other.

How to Address other Tweeps

Simply use the Twitter handle, even for heads of state or government. This is not rude, simply necessity.

When addressing royalty, space permitting, throw in a HRH.

Who Should Tweet?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was pictured pressing the button to send his first tweet from Twitter headquarters on 23 June 2010. But in reality, no one expects world leaders to really tweet themselves. And very few do (notable exceptions are Malaysian Prime Minister @NajibRazak and EU President Herman van Rompuy @euHvr).

World leaders usually have a Twitter scribe or team to capture their thoughts in 140 characters. This is perfectly acceptable providing it is made clear who is tweeting – add a ‘signature’ to every tweet: Australian prime minister Julia Gillard signs all her personal tweets JG, while those sent by her scribe are tagged JGTeam.

What to Tweet?

It might be tempting to tweet one’s daily or weekly schedule, but quite frankly who would want to follow someone else’s agenda?

Tweeting excerpts from official speeches is boring, unless it is a quote that will make history.

Make your Twitter account a personal news feed peppered with personal thoughts and reflections such as this statement from the Russian president about the Samsung Galaxy Tablet: “It’s convenient, but the quality isn’t great 🙁 “

Tweets can be playful. Take the French president, currently holding the G20 presidency, who organized a quiz and tweeted about it: “How well do you know the #G20? Try our online quiz on!

Don’t use Twitter as just another broadcast channel to push out your messages. Rather engage your followers with tweets of particular interest to them.


Listen to your followers and reply to a follower at least once a day to show you care. You’re not expected to reply to every single question tweeted, but having your assistant select one or two questions from the Twittersphere and replying to them goes a long way in raising your public profile and making you appear more accessible.

Consider the occasional Twitter interview.

How Often to Tweet?

A tweet a day is recommended. Anything above this can be interpreted as spam.

Don’t stop tweeting! On 1 November 2010, a day after being elected, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff tweeted to her 330.000 followers: “It is an honour and a great feeling to be chosen to preside over my country. I promise each and every Brazilian my total dedication.” However since being elected, her Twitter activity seriously suffered. On 13 December 2011 she tweets: “Friends, I don’t have much time to be here with you. Let’s talk more in 2011.” The account has been dormant ever since.

Local Language vs English

Staff permitting, run one Twitter account per language (the Russian president and Japanese Prime Minister have a separate English language account, while the Israeli government tweets on 13 different accounts in 13 languages).

When tweeting in your own language, throw in the occasional tweet in English to satisfy your international audience. The Turkish president Abdullah Gül did it to excellent effect: “The EU will be stronger both politically and economically with Turkey’s membership.”


Make your feed more interesting by sharing pictures of your daily activity – but avoid handshakes and other official photo ops.

Select images that provide insight into your daily life like Russian President Medvedev, an avid amateur photographer, does. He tweeted this snapshot from his trip to the disputed Kurile island of Kunashir (which, incidentally, didn’t go down well with the Japanese authorities who called in the Russian ambassador to lodge a formal protest). Such images give a real candid insight into his daily life.

The French presidency @Elysee recently tweeted a snapshot of a very private video conference with President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Run a fun photo contest like the White House did: “Name who Obama is talking to. Bonus for the tuft of hair. Prize: Nothing.

Short links

The best Tweets are short, preferably no more than 120 characters thus increasing the chance of them being re-tweeted.

Consider your own link-shortener, like the White House and the Kremlin

Facebook/LinkedIn Integration

Do not generate your tweets automatically from your Facebook fan page. Each social network demands your full and undivided attention. Discussions on Twitter are different to those on Facebook.

Thanks to @Damon Clinkscales from @Doesfollow for the analysis of the Twitter connections

Image credit: Shutterstock

25 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “How World Leaders use Social Media: Why the @WhiteHouse doesn’t follow @BarackObama & other idiosyncrasies”

  1.  Haha this article is too funny! Twitter is becoming too serious for me. 

  2. I do find it very interesting how new media now trumps traditional media. Instead of a world leaders heading over to @CNN:twitter he can just update his followers through Twitter. It is also comforting to know that the very same Twitter philosophy that applies to us — be authentic — also applies to world leaders. 

    Why is @twitter:twitter such an important communications platform because it offers near instant access to 7 million followers — in the case of @barackobama:twitter .

  3. Anonymous says:

     I agree that each social network needs its own divided attention, but elected officials have better things to worry about than their Twitter and Facebook page. Yes, it’s important for them to connect with their electorate, but it’s more important for them to do the work of the people.

    •  @CJArlotta I expect elected officials to check their Twitter/Facebook accounts every day like we all check our email inboxes. Of course they have PAs to sift through the messages, but the replies must come from them personally.

  4. Dave Doolin says:

     “Do not generate your tweets automatically from your Facebook fan page. Each social network demands your full and undivided attention. Discussions on Twitter are different to those on Facebook.”

    Totally agree, even though my Twitters is pointing at my Facebooks. Since I’m not currently using either (partly because I forget how to unhook them), I’ve just stopped using both.

    Matthias, thank you for this excellent article. I’m laying low on these networks, but I follow Brian’s blog very closely. Even if I’m not active, I believe it’s in my interest to pay close attention to what’s going on.

    •  @Dave Thanks for your comment. I have also linked my Twitter to my Facebook, spamming my friends 🙂 However seeing some politicians automatically tweeting their Facebook status is a lack of respect imho.

  5.  My Pakistani Politicians are also on Twitter like President of Pakistan @Pres_Zardari then interior minister of Pakistan @SenRehmanMalik:twitter  & Chief minister of punjab @CMShahbaz:twitter . there are many more @ImranKhanPTI:twitter  

  6. Kadeal says:


    Totally off subject here: could you tell me which plugin you use for the FB, Linkedin, Twitter sharing on your blog?


    Philippe (Paris)

  7. Think there’s a Chinese wall between official office duties and campaign work. Such that you can’t use your campaign social media, in this example @BarackObama for activities that White House carries. Same thing applies @WhiteHouse – it can’t post campaign activities, in this case via Organizing for America. (disclosure: I do consulting work on social comm. for a Congress person). So @WhiteHouse can’t follow @BarackObama…

    •  @Dewity that seems like a plausible explanation why the @WhiteHouse is not following @BarackObama. But it shouldn’t keep them from following other world leaders.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “Do not generate your tweets automatically from your Facebook fan page. Each social network demands your full and undivided attention. Discussions on Twitter are different to those on Facebook.”

    I want to share the same thing to both at the same time!!

  9. Shuk says:

    This is an awesome tool for me… Thanks.

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