Linkedin for diplomats

Can the power of the largest professional network translate to the foreign policy community?

Andreas Sandre
May 15, 2017 · 11 min read

While not the most followed world leader on Linkedin, newly sworn in French President Emmanuel Macron has certainly been an active Influencer on the platform — with his inauguration speech posted in real time on Linkedin among other social media.

Macron used the platform as a candidate during the presidential campaign in France but it remains to be seen how he will use it as president, as his predecessor was not on Linkedin.

Will he follow in the footsteps of other world leaders — and Linkedin Influencers — like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who both post quite regularly with updates on their policies and activities? Or more like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who, although an Influencer, he has not been active at all on Linkedin?

As Macron was sworn in, his followers on Linkedin surpasses 100,000. Modi, Trudeau, and Abe are among the most followed world leaders on the platform. Modi accounts for more than 2 million followers, while Trudeau and Abe’s followers are just above 200,000.

Why are world leaders, politicians, and diplomats on Linkedin?

Linkedin is not just for prospective job candidates and employers. It is not just the largest professional network, as the company states. It is also a great way to reach out to professional communities and groups, and talk about foreign policy priorities in a deeper sense while embracing its user base and extensive reach.

Indeed, it can be a useful digital diplomacy tool — although somewhat unexplored. Somewhat unexplored even for political and campaign purposes.

When former US President Barack Obama joined Linkedin in 2007, he was a US Senator running for president.

“We all knew that Obama is making the most of Internet culture, launching his own social network, gaining a larger-than-life presence on MySpace, YouTube, and even Twitter”, Mashable wrote in 2007.

And for instance, in 2011, Obama spoke on the subject of job creation and unemployment at a town hall hosted at Linkedin Headquarters in Silicon Valley.

But not even Obama was able to use Linkedin to its full potential. Since recently his presence had not attracted has many followers as maybe his digital strategy team hoped for. In April 2016, when firm Burson-Masteller published its World Leaders on Linkedin study, he had just over 21,000 followers and few posts, including one about his first job at Baskin-Robbins in Honolulu — which is not on his page any longer.

Today, a year after that Burson-Masteller study, Obama counts more than 2.7 million followers. But he doesn’t appear to be an Influencer — although he was during his presidency— and, according to Mashable, he only recently updated his profile.

Obama’s profile was a campaign profile, not an official White House digital asset. That is why it does not appear in a January 2017 post on the digital transition of the Obama’s White House.

Of note, US President Donald Trump is not on Linkedin.

Hillary Clinton, another of the site’s Influencers, joined in May 2015 during her presidential campaign and now counts over 700,000 followers. Interestingly, a 2012 email from her personal account reveals she was quite unsure what Linkedin was and how it worked.

“How does this work?,” she wrote to her aides after she received a request to connect via Linkedin.

“One of my biggest challenges in this role is that a lot of public sector workers don’t use Linkedin on a regular basis,” Jennifer Urbanski, the platform’s Government and Consulting Lead in Canada, wrote in April 2017. “Due to antiquated social media policies that instill fear in government workers, the thought of blending their government job with their personal professional persona is crippling.”

Urbanski said that she has to remind government officials “over and over again that LinkedIn is much more than a place where people go to find a new job.”

A look at the use of Linkedin in foreign policy might not show many best practices and, according to Burson-Masteller’s, “it comes as no surprise that world leaders and governments have been slow to embrace Linkedin.”

The study, which identified 154 governmental accounts, including 64 personal profiles of heads of state and government and 90 institutional government pages, highlights that “despite its massive audience […], Linkedin can be considered a niche network for governmental communication.”

Nonetheless, it’s popularity is growing and today the social media network counts over 500 million users in more than 200 countries; more than 10 million active job posts and data on more than 9 million companies.

But how connected the Linkedin global community is across industries, countries, and jobs?

“The impact of half a billion professionals connecting and communicating is very real, and very accessible to anyone who wants to take part today,” a Linkedin blog post mentions. “We’re excited to think about the potential of what a highly connected global community of professionals can do, and the value that is created for every member of the global workforce.”

According to Vincenzo Cosenza’s World Map of Social Networks, Linkedin is the second most used social media tool in India, and ranks first in some African countries like Mali, Cameroon, and Zambia.

“Overall LinkedIn conquers 9 countries,” Cosenza wrote.

A few international leaders have embraced the site quite successfully.

During his tenure as British Prime Minister, David Cameron was the most popular — and possibly the most prolific — world leader on Linkedin with over 2.5 million followers. He is still quite active with many posts on foreign policy and international development.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also a great example for digital diplomacy practitioners exploring Linkedin, with a total of more than 1.2 followers.

He joined Linkedin in September 2013 on the occasion of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly and his posts touched upon all issues discussed at the UN, from climate change, to peace and security around the world. As an Influencer, he posted quite frequently on the site with a total of almost 60 articles.

It is interesting to notice that his presence on Linkedin diverted a bit from the UN social media strategy for Secretary-General Ban as until then he was not present — personally or officially — on any other platforms.

“I am like you and I’m one of you and you should also be me or you should be also part of United Nations,” Ban explains to Daniel Roth, Executive Editor at Linkedin, in an exclusive interview.

Ban is one of the very few world leaders to have chosen for Linkedin’s Influencer Interviews, alongside Jim Yong Kim, President of The World Bank, who has more than 1.4 million followers — both were interviewed in 2014.

“As we met in Linkedin’s office space in the Empire State Building, I was struck by how young social media companies like Linkedin are helping to spread the word about important issues and to crowdsource solutions,” Kim said.

“The kind of creativity and compassion displayed by the LinkedIn community are key ingredients to solving global challenges. I, for one, have been deeply appreciative of your feedback in the comments to my Influencer posts. You have given me some really good ideas. Please keep them coming.”

Another interesting world leader to establish herself as a Linkedin Influencer is Helen Clark, former Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Clark, who run for the post of UN Secretary-General in 2016 and has always been very active on social media, did not post with much frequency but managed to attract almost 40,000 followers. The post on her nomination to UN Secretary-General generated over 11,000 views, around 1,200 likes, and more than 100 comments.

“At its best, the position of UN Secretary-General is about giving a voice to seven billion people. I intend to run a very accessible campaign, and look forward to engaging with the UN General Assembly and the public in the weeks and months ahead,” she wrote.

Three months into her campaign, she posted an update with her assessment and what was coming next before the election.

“It is indeed good to see so much public engagement in the debate about who should fill the post, and the greater opportunity for all UN Member States to engage in it,” she said.

Somebody who has started recently to experiment on Linkedin is Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose first article on the platform was about women’s empowerment and jobs for women in the business sector, posted on International Women’s Day.

“As countries around the world seek to grow their economies and reduce inequality, tapping into the huge potential of women can be a game changer,” she wrote. “Recent analytical work — including that done at the IMF — clearly demonstrates the compelling business case for women’s empowerment. Everyone has a role to play — including governments, businesses, and international institutions.”

Because Linkedin is a social network mainly dedicated to professionals and job search, it is a bit harder to think of it as a way to connect with world leaders. It is, however, a great way for diplomats and ministries of foreign affairs, development professionals, charities, foundations, and all interested in foreign policy to create networks, interact with peers, and explore new connections for current or future projects.

This is the true power of Linkedin.

In December 2015, three years after the launch of the Influencers platform, Linkedin published the list of top 10 Influencers of 2015, ranked by engagement. No political figure is among them and it’s not shocking to see two global entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Richard Branson topping the list. The only foreign policy-related individual to be included was Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, and very social media savvy.

In Linkedin’s 2016 top Influencers ranking, Bremmer is still in the top 10. However, country-specific rankings include: in the UK, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International (in the UK); in India, Modi and former UN official Shashi Tharoor, now a Member of Parliament; in France, Gilles Babinet, Digital Champion of France at the EU Commission and former president of the French National Digital Council (CNN), Bertrand Piccard, Founder of Solar Impulse, and Axelle Lemaire, former Minister of Digital Affairs.

Now, before Obama’s 2007 debut on Linkedin or even after the launch of the Influencers platform, the company seemed to have stayed pretty much out of the political and foreign policy fray.

However, the company, which in June 2016 was bought by Microsoft for a staggering $26 billion dollars, has reassessed its presence in the realms of politics and advocacy. In January 2016, Linkedin’s danhorowitz, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, wrote an interesting post on the social site’s news focus.

“The opportunities for industry organizations, coalitions, non-profits and other third-party groups to connect with like-minded professionals around policy issues may be a new way to think about LinkedIn for some, but many groups already have found success on the platform,” Horowitz wrote as he took the helm of the new Advocacy & Campaigns team.

“Like successful campaigns on other platforms, simply having a presence isn’t enough to drive results. But if you produce compelling content with a strong point of view, develop an effective targeting approach and engage thoughtfully, you are likely to create meaningful results.”

In a later post derived from a panel organized by Linkedin in partnership with the Public Affairs Council, Horowitz highlighted five key points to engage audiences in policy and advocacy areas and the site’s “unique ability to find, target, and engage a distinct professional audience that can be activated for advocacy, membership, development, etc.”

So, why can Linkedin be a useful tool for diplomats?

“More than 400 million people (124 million in the U.S.) have told us where they work, what they do, how long they have done it, where they went to school, where they used to work, what their skills are, and who they are connected to in their own networks,” Chuck Westover, formerly with Linkedin’s Politics & Advocacy Team, wrote in a 2016 post.

Westover also stressed that there are very few “fake” profiles, something that in the past few years has become an issue for many social media. This is a unique trait of Linkedin compared to other platforms and it certainly shows a rather qualitative side on its audience.

“The fact that your Linkedin profile or page becomes essentially your professional identity ‘self-polices’ against this practice and leads to more substantive discussion in the comments sections on posts.”

Moreover, Linkedin allows you to reach a very educated audience. According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 65% of Linkedin users have a college degree. Interesting also that almost half of the users (46% to be exact) are between the age of 30 and 49. In particular, the company highlights that they have 87 million Millenials — their fastest growing audience segment — and 11 million of those are in decision-making positions.

The mindset of Linkedin users is also different, as they tend to focus on maintaining a professional identity, making useful contacts, and getting updates on brands, the news, and current affairs. Members are also very interested and engaged in policy content, including foreign policy — a recent survey showed that 17% of Linkedin’s members in the US wanted to hear about international affairs and foreign policy from presidential candidates. In addition, according to Linkedin data, their users are much more politically engaged than the average voter: 42% of them have shared or wrote a political post; and 40% attended a political event.

But Linkedin is trying to expand its reach. Recently, the platform rolled out a trending topic feed. Trending Storylines is a new section of the app where users can find a collection of recent news stories and accompanying user posts that are personalized based on their interests and profession.

“The obvious hope here is that better news curation will give users more incentive to spend time inside the app,” Recode wrote back in March.

“Over the past year, we have completely rebuilt the LinkedIn Feed experience,” Tomer Cohen, Vice President of Product at Linkedin, wrote in a recent post. “We redesigned it from scratch so you can fully control your feed experience and stay on top of conversations from people you are following and your connections.”

The launch of Trending Storylines comes shortly after the company released an overall redesign of the site for desktops.

“The cleaner look is easier to digest,” TNW commented. “It’s more Facebook-like, which for a lot of people — especially new members — will mean something more familiar. Anything that gives people a reason to stick around is a win for Linkedin.”

Also, of note for political and advocacy professionals, in 2016 the platform launched conversion tracking, which allows all advertisers to monitor not just clicks, but also how much of their traffic is converting.

“This means we can track email signups, membership and conference leads, legislative contacts, and much more,” Horowitz said. “Beyond […] conversion tracking, expect to see additional innovation around company and account-based targeting, retargeting, and much more.”

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy

Andreas Sandre

Written by

Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy

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