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Canada uses social media to engage China’s new tech-savvy generation
Friday, September 16th, 2011

In early August, it was reported that the Canadian Embassy in Beijing had used the popular Twitter-style social networking site Sina Weibo to post the entire Federal Court decision in the legal battle that led to the deportation of businessman Lai Changxing.

While governments in Canada are starting to use social media to engage Canadians in dialogue,  the creation of a Weibo account makes the embassy the first Canadian diplomatic outpost to use social media to speak directly to local citizens in another country. Although the embassy in Washington D.C. has a Twitter account, it is used to communicate with expatriate Canadians living and working in the United States. The Sina Weibo account, on the other hand, is used to speak directly with Chinese people and avoid the filter of China’s official, state-controlled media.

“We [diplomats] are under tremendous pressure to innovate and to really understand who our audience is. We’re pretty convinced that reaching out to this group of largely young people who are interested in the world and interested in Canada relates directly to what we’re doing here,” Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, David Mulroney, said in an interview. The 56-year-old career diplomat said the online interaction with ordinary Chinese citizens was now “the single most important tool we have in understanding what this emerging generation in China is all about.” 

Sina Weibo offers the embassy a chance to listen to and interact with Chinese citizens in a way that wasn’t possible before, by using social media to: determine what’s important to ordinary Chinese citizens, and the new tech-savvy generation; create mutual understanding and explore shared values; and to possibly change the perception of ‘brand Canada’ in the minds of Chinese citizens. There are risks as well, however, in letting government officials interact so freely with Chinese internet users. Education and training of embassy staff, as well as a social media strategy, are critical to ensuring the success of this approach.

While the embassy’s creation of a Sina Weibo account was hardly revolutionary in Beijing, it was indeed revolutionary for the Government of Canada in how it engages with foreign nationals beyond our borders.  The United States and United Kingdom have social media presences for the vast majority of their foreign missions. Could this be the beginning of a new and similar approach to public diplomacy for Canada?

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