AFP published an interesting article yesterday looking at the US Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney (@KristieKenney), and her use of social media. I was grateful to be contacted for opinion, and subsequently quoted, for the article excerpts of which are below.

You can read it in full via Google here.

For Kenney, the days of starchy emissaries living in ivory towers are over. Diplomacy, said the 56-year-old, is about relationships. Between two governments, of course, but also between two peoples. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have created connections that never used to exist, and Kenney — who arrived in Thailand in January — has opened up to them in a disarmingly friendly way. Nearly 20,000 people “follow” her daily Thai travels via Twitter.

“For me it’s a connection and it’s a way to connect people,” she explained. “And it allows people to feel that they can reach out to the ambassador, who is not just a figure hidden in a big building.”

The “connection” woven by her predecessor was of a somewhat different order. In late 2010, the Wikileaks website published cables by the former ambassador Eric John which quoted unflattering comments about the future of the monarchy — a major taboo in Thailand.

The cables caused a stir, especially since the US has been an ally of Bangkok since the beginning of the Cold War. Is Kenney, then, on a mission to improve the image of the United States in Thailand?

“I’ve never sort of thought of it as a grand strategic plan,” she said, adding that her Twitter feed is personal and has nothing to do with the State Department.

But she admits some in Washington might have found her relaxed style suitable for the job.

“It does make sense,” said the diplomat, who likes to be “someone transparent” in her methods. “People have a sense of what I am doing, where I am now.”

Kristie Kenney during her time as US Ambassador to the Philippines. Pic: AP.

Indeed this difference in approach has drawn criticism from some who feel that an ambassador’s role is behind the scenes rather than as a PR or cheerleader, while others feel the ambassador should be vocal on social issues in Thailand.

To her credit, in the article Ambassador Kenney expresses an awareness of the drawbacks and limitations behind Twitter:

Could this social networking be the silver bullet for diplomacy? “It is extremely superficial. You’ve got 140 characters on Twitter,” she said. But “I do think it can help people feel more comfortable with America.”

Though the article does touch on some of Kenney’s detractors, it doesn’t say much of the criticism that the Ambassador receives for her strictly personal use of social media.

In researching the article, the AFP posed a few questions to me, the answers of which – below – give more context behind my thoughts of Ambassador Kenney and social media, and Twitter in particular.

— How effective can Twitter be as a “soft power” form of diplomacy?

It really depends on the goal. If you’re looking at connecting with people, social media can be very effective. However, the Ambassador keeps her tweets and social media content ‘personal’ – which frustrates a great many who would like her to use her influence to champion key issues – such as the recent arrest of a Thai born American citizen who broke the country’s controversial lese-majeste law.

— What is it about Kristie Kenney’s style in particular that’s earned her such a large following in Thailand?

Ambassador Kenney’s large following includes a large number of Twitter users from The Philippines, where she previously served, which is renowned as a big user of social media. However she has certainly attracted at least 8,000 or so new followers since moving to Thailand.

Kenney is popular in Thailand because her updates are personal, written by her and she is often responsive, taking time to respond to messages she receives on the service. This personal approach feeds into many Thais’ interest in reading snippets from famous people’s lives, as well as the chance to reach out and contact them.

It is important to remember, as I already mentioned, that Kenney’s social media presence is ‘personal not official’. This is a source of frustration for many who would like her to flex her influence and position to help draw attention to issues – particularly free speech-related – in the country.

— Do you think many other diplomats will follow her lead, both in joining Twitter and using it to show a more personal side? There seem to be a number using the site already, but others are a bit more reserved in their “tweeting”.

The British Ambassador to Thailand is an active tweeter but lacks the wider social media presence – blog, FB Pages, social media strategy, etc – of the US team. The US Embassies are leading the pack in SE Asia with active teams in Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta amongst others. It is worth noting that the official Twitter account for the Embassy in Bangkok (@USEmbassyBKK) has a larger following than Ambassador Kenney – circa 28,000 – and is also very strong on Facebook.

The Embassy puts a great deal of effort into social media strategy and though its social media presence doesn’t begin and end with Kenney, she is clearly a key figure that helps personalise it.

FYI when i looked at trends for 2011 (here), I mentioned the BKK US Embassy as an early adopter of social media which might inspire other business and organisations in Thailand.

As I eluded to in my answer, social media is about more than just the Ambassador and the team does an excellent job connecting with social network users in Thailand through its online presences. While it also takes care to get to know the more influential figures in Thailand’s online space with regular communication and meet-ups.

The subject of US Ambassador and social media is a major talking point here in Thailand with many following her in a near starstruck, while other more critical that she keeps things personal and does not leverage her influence to help tackle the country’s pressing issues.

I’d be interested in hear what readers and those in Thailand think of the Ambassador and her use of Twitter – the comments section is, as ever, available for your thoughts.