#selfies for diplomats

No matter the platform, world leaders love selfies! But what about ambassadors, embassies, and diplomats?

Andreas Sandre
Jun 27, 2017 · 17 min read

Not all selfies end up on social media — at least not on public profiles — even when they’re as iconic as the one with former US president Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt.

We’ve all seen the photos of them attempting the selfie during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 2013. Those photos went viral on social media and virtually every newspaper — online and offline — in the world talked about it.

But where was it posted?

Honestly nowhere, although there are photo of Thorning Schmidt texting or posting on social media. And apparently it was her very first selfie. Quite a start indeed!

That same year — 2013 — the Oxford dictionary added the word selfie to its online edition. Merriam-Webster added it a year later.

So, what is a selfie?

According to Oxford, it is “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.” The key here is the fact that selfies are photos that we take or ourselves, as they’re mostly characterized by the classic extended-arm pose — or even half-faces left out of the picture.

Hilariously, the first example they cite states:

Occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.

Since that Obama-Cameron-Thorning Schmidt moment in South Africa, selfies have become a daily occurrence for all generations and on all digital platforms. And not only for the stars of Hollywood immortalized in Ellen De Generes’ second-most-retweeted-selfie-of-all-times (the first most retweeted one is the so-called Chicken Nugget Tweet), but also for world leaders, government officials, ambassadors, and diplomats.

I wonder how many likes and retweets the Obama-Cameron-Thorning Schmidt selfie would have gotten. After all, Obama went viral many times before, including a Facebook video he recorded for BuzzFeed where he is famously using a selfie stick.

BuzzFeedVideo / Via Facebook: video.php

“How did we get Obama to use a selfie stick?,” writes Buzzfeed. “Oh, because he wants you to go to healthcare.gov.”

The video itself received 62 million views and almost 1.5 million likes!

But how popluar are selfies among world leaders and politicians?

For National Selfie Day 2017, Twitter posted a Moment with some of the most famous government selfies, including selfies with the Pope, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, CanadianPM Justine Trudeau, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri.


Macri in particular has been quite active with selfies as well as strategic and creative in how he uses them.

Via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mauriciomacri/photos/10152416814558478/

In April 2014, he responded with a selfie — posted on all his social media channels — to NASA campaign #GlobalSelfies to celebrate Earth Day.

With that campiagn, NASA asked people all around the world a simple question: “Where are you on Earth Right Now?”

The goal was to use each picture as a pixel in the creation of a “Global Selfie” image — a mosaic that would look like Earth appeared from space on Earth Day.

The image was built using 36,422 individual photos, including probably that of Macri, that were posted on social media and tagged #globalselfie on or around April 22, 2014. People on every continent — 113 countries and regions in all — posted selfies. From Antarctica to Yemen, Greenland to Guatemala, Micronesia to the Maldives, Pakistan, Poland, Peru — and on. The zoommable image was assembled after weeks of curating more than 50,000 #globalselfie submissions — not all were accessible or usable — from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ and Flickr.

Click the image above to zoom in and navigate the mosaic: http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/155294

Back to Macri, the Argentinian president has not only played and experimented with selfies, but also with augmented reality selfies on Snapchat.

Macri in 2016 swapping faces with television host, media producer, and businessman Marcello Tinelli.
Also in 2016, Macri on Snapchat during his visit to tech and innovation festival Tecnopolis.

Snapchat might be the latest crazy for New Zealand prime minister Bill English, who debuted on the app with a selfie, as I was writing this post.


The power of selfies resides in the one element that often is missing in politics and diplomacy: approachability. It’s clear that selfies are very useful tools when campaigning for public office — as they allow candidates to appear more approachable and personal — but they have a great potential when it comes to diplomacy as well, often seen as happening behind closed doors and away from the masses.

Justin Trudeau of Canada has shown many times how selfies have a role to play in foreign policy.

During the recent NATO summit in Brussels, Trudeau showed off his new NATO-themed socks on Instagram Stories — apparently he is social-media-famous for his colorful and crazy socks :)

A screenshot captured by Steve Kopack.
Trudeau showing off his sock to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders gathered in Brussels for the 2017 NATO summit.

And last year, during a reception at the White House on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, he posted a selfie with then-Italian Prime Minister Renzi — showing how diplomatic relations can become true friendships and even “bromance” as described recently for the rapport that Trudeau has built lately with French president Macron.

And here, a few months later, Trudeau with then-US president Barack Obama at the North American Leaders Summit in Ottawa, also attended by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.

Considering that world leaders and politicians are often accompanied by a staff photographer to capture the best moments of a campaign stop or an international trip and summit, selfies show the human side of them, a true behind-the-scenes.

They also give a glimpse at their private lives, like this one posted on Instagram for Trudeau’s wife’s birthday.

And look what it happens when you put Trudeau and Macri in the same room!

Via Clarin.com

According to a 2017 study on World Leaders on Instagram, while “very few world leaders manage their own Instagram account,” some are, at least occasionally, as shown by the selfies that they have posted.

The study, published in April by communications powerhouse Burson-Marsteller, indicates that in 2016, “Thirteen world leaders have occasionally taken their own pictures and selfies,” including Macri, Trudeau, Peña Nieto, but also Indonesian president Joko Widodo, and prime ministers Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, Erna Solberg of Norway, Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Najib Razak of Malaysia, Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark.

“Most world leaders have embraced the selfie culture of their fans, happily agreeing to be featured in selfies — the digital equivalent of an autograph,” Burson-Marsteller states. “A group of admirers will generally cuddle up close to their favorite leader to take a selfie. Instagram accounts come alive particularly during election campaigns, with pictures of politicians surrounded by a crowd of admirers wanting to capture a selfie.”

Like Macri, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is not shy when it comes to selfies, and often times it posts what he calls “welfies,” or group selfies — even experimenting with selfie sticks and 360 technology.

And here using both at the same time, to celebrate Singapore’s National Day with a 360° wefie with the Istana Ceremonial Guard:

Handy for when regular wefies can’t squeeze everyone into the same photo!

A collector of selfies is Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak who seems to post on Instagram one for almost every meeting he has with foreign leaders.

From the left (or from the top if you’re on a mobile device): with Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore; former president of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; former US president Barack Obama; Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud; Grand Mufti of Zimbabwe Ismail ibn Musa Menk; Narendra Modi of India; and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Another great example is prime minister Modi of India who has chosen Twitter and Facebook mostly for his selfies. “Selfie diplomacy,” as famously tweeted in 2015 by Gopal Baglay, official spokesperson of the Indian ministry of external affairs.

“While the younger generation is obsessed by the selfie craze, Narendra Modi too was bitten by the ‘selfie bug’ and now has turned out to be a selfie expert,” wrote in 2015 Sandra Marina Fernandes of One India News. “Modi never seems to miss a chance to click a selfie. Whether it is clicking selfies with children or the crowd Modi never hesitates from clicking a selfie and is seen obliging his supporters most of the times.”

With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
With Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Qarqash.

And his selfie obsession has earned him fame even outside of India.

“Prime minister Modi is very popular among the Chinese people,” said China’s ambassador to India Le Yucheng at the launch of the Chinese translation of his biography Modi — Rise of a New Star. “The photos of him trying the spinning wheel and swing with President Xi Jinping and his super-selfie with Premier Li Keqiang are a big hit among Chinese fans,” he added.


In a way you can say that Modi’s love for selfies contributed to his election as prime minister. The day he casted his vote, Modi posted a selfie on Twitter using hashtag #SelfieWithModi and asking his followers to share their selfies while voting to create a giant mosaic of Modi.

The website he set up invited voters: “In this selfie season share yours with #SelfieWithModi and become part of this mosaic”. Adding: “Together, lets become agents of change and lay the foundation of a strong and developed India.”

And Modi was also “the first political leader to use a Twitter Mirror, an exclusive app, usually the province of pop stars and red-carpet types, that produces autographed selfies and posts them to Twitter on his tours,” as the Wall Street Journal explained back in 2015.


100,000 likes on Facebook, and counting. Almost 5,000 comments, 13,000 shares, and more than 1 million views in the first 24 hours.

This is the result of a video selfie posted a few days ago by Hollywood actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Facebook during a meeting with French president Macron.

“We will deliver together to make the planet great again,” says Macron standing right next to Schwarzenegger.

“I was truly honored to meet with President Emmanuel Macron about how we can work together for a clean energy future,” the Facebook reads.

“The surprise selfie video follows Trump’s announcement on June 1 that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, a non-binding deal that set emissions-reduction targets for 145 countries in order to combat climate change,” explained Politico.

Video selfies are becoming quite viral when world leaders take them.

Earlier this year, Indonesian president Widodo, very popular on social media, showed how video selfies are able to create huge engagement. In March, he posted one on Facebook during a luncheon with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to kick off the king’s 12-day state visit to Indonesia.

So far the video has captured over 3 million views, almost 200,000 likes, about 50,000 shares, and 14,000 comments.

This past January, Canada’s Trudeau took to Snapchat to answer questions in a selfie-styled Live Story, the first Live Story with a world leader, according to Adweek.

“While Snapchat has done similar Q&As with Kevin Hart and Selena Gomez, today’s story is the first time a politician has participated in one, possibly indicating that more elected officials will use the app as a communications platform,” the paper reported.

And the questions Trudeau took were not only about politics.

“What hair products do you use to keep your hair looking like this?,” a student asked.


Like world leaders, foreign ministers are also active on social media and some of them do use selfies to help citizens understand foreign policy and expand their reach abroad.

Anders Samuelsen of Denmark is not shy on camera and often posts selfies on Instagram — even outdoing his prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen — for a behind-the-scenes look at his travels and for more private moments. He has recently posted a selfie wearing a traditional Nigerian hat during a trip to Nigeria and he posted a selfie at the Roland-Garros French tennis open in Paris on the sidelines of his participation to meetings at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Other active selfie-takers among foreign ministers are Edgars Rinkēvičs in Latvia, Gebran Bassil in Lebanon, Nasser Judeh of Jordan, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Many selfies taken by foreign ministers and other political leaders don’t even end up on social media platforms. But taking selfies (not just posing for them), although without posting them or knowing where they’re going to end up, is something that many don’t shy away from.

Julie Bishop, foreign minister of Australia, Federica Mogherini, vice president of the European Commission and high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, and Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari are a few example. Even former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier — not the most social media savvy politicians in Europe who debuted on Twitter only a few months ago after being elected president of Germany — succumbed to the selfie trend during the 2016 German chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Mogherini at Tsinghua University in China for the 6th edition of Top Talk+; Bishop in Jakarta for Fashion Week; Zebari with UAE foreign minister Al Khalifa; and Steinmaier (with a camera rather than a smartphone) in Berlin during a OSCE meeting with youth.

What about selfie campaigns?

“One of our brightest campaigns is #SelfieWithFlag,” wrote the foreign ministry of Ukraine in a 2016 guest blog on Twiplomacy.com. “We decided to hold it to celebrate the Day of National Flag of Ukraine (August 23). So we just published a post with the motto ‘Gonna travel abroad? Take Ukrainian flag!’ and invited all Ukrainians and friends of Ukraine abroad to take a selfie with the Ukrainian flag near a famous tourist attraction abroad, add the hashtag #SelfieWithFlag and publish the photo on social media,” they explained.

According to the Ukrainian foreign ministry, the campaign generated “nearly 200 wonderful photos from all over the world and were impressed how people over the globe are ready to engage in social media campaigns.”


Ambassadors, diplomats, and embassies are all over the place when it comes to using selfies. That is good because it means they are experimenting with it. But it makes it more difficult to collect best practices or good examples.

There are however good examples and few ambassadors might be able to beat Rufus Gifford, former US envoy to Denmark and a veritable superstar with the Danes.

During his posting, not only was Gifford able to connect with the Danish people thanks to his charisma and his use of digital platforms, but he was also able champion issues that were important to him and to the Obama administration, including LGBTI rights.

All of this while staying approachable and personable and with a goal to engage with his audiences both in Denmark and back home in the US and promoting American interests.

“These days, Gifford can hardly step out the door without being asked for a selfie from fans and although not everyone agrees with his decision to embrace reality TV, Gifford said the risk has been worth it,” wrote CNN early this year after the debut on Netflix of a documentary series on Gifford.

Family values are also a big thing for former Argentinian ambassador to the US Martin Lousteau who posted this cute family selfie on January 1 to wish everybody a happy new year.

“The image of the ambassador and his family, without makeup or formal clothing, is a powerful one — and with over 7000 likes, it is clear that most people agree,” writes Portland Communications. “It makes them seem, even if only for a moment, like an ordinary family celebrating the New Year, rather than members of the diplomatic elite. For a domestic audience used to seeing their diplomats at high society events and political summits, it is a stark contrast, and one that Lousteau deploys to great effect. The unvarnished nature of the photo helps.”

From Denmark and Argentina to Israel, ambassador Meron Reuben, head of protocol of Israeli foreign ministry, is also a good example. Since his appointment in 2015, ambassador Reuben has experimented with selfies even though not all his selfies are true selfies.

In his first-ever tweet in August 2015, he posted a selfie during the preparation for an ambassador credential ceremony.

His colleague Arsen Ostrovsky, executive director of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, responded: “Looking forward to more #selfies of you with visiting dignitaries and officials!.” To which Reuben replied: “On the learning curve, but will do my best…”

Reuben’s latest selfie was with the new US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

From Israel to Ethiopia, where Mexican ambassador Victor Trevino even managed to squeeze himself and four other ambassadors in one selfie — Indonesia, Korea, Turkey (who took the selfie), and Australia — during a working lunch.

In Thailand, French ambassador Gilles Garachon was videoed while taking a selfie on stage with the audience of the Franco-Thai Chamber of Commerce. The ambassador posted the selfie only a few minutes later. Wow, all in real time!

In the US, did one ambassador manage to snap a few selfies with president Donald Trump? It seems Afghan ambassador Hamdullah Mohib took one at the inauguration parade.

The selfie, also posted on the Facebook page of the Afghan Embassy in Washington DC, received many comments, both positive and negative.

“Thank you for uploading the pictures, and this selfies,” writes a follower. “Undiplomatic,” another commented.

Habib Khan Totakhil, Kabul based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, posted another selfie that the ambassador took with Trump, citing controversies. “Afghan ambassador to D.C. @hmohib clicked a selfie with @realdonaldtrump on the inauguration, he got criticized,” he tweeted. “Now here is another one.”

Washington DC seems not just selfies, but also artistic selfies, like this one with Norwegian ambassador Kåre R. Aasto and artist Helene Meldahl taken while in front of a painted mirror.

“Mirror mirror on the wall… who’s the coolest ambassador of all? No doubt it has to be the Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. Kåre R. Aas,” posted Meldahl on her Instagram account. The selfie celebrated the 100th photo for her “mirrorsme” project.

“I was working as an intern at the Norwegian embassy in the US,” she told Local.no. “To celebrate my 100th “mirrorsme” image, I thought it would be a cool idea to get the ambassador Kåre R. Aasto join the picture. It was funny because the drawing is in the ladies room at the Norwegian embassy, but the ambassador joined in with a joke and a relaxed attitude. He also re-tweeted the selfie on his Twitter account,” she explained.

The nordic ambassadors in the US capital have been very strategic with selfies. Back in 2014, they came together for their first nordic selfie.


Selfies are about people. They’re about a moment, an instant. So how can embassies and diplomatic missions use them to engage with their audience?

In 2015, the Polish Embassy in London launched the #MyPolska campaign to celebrate Poland’s Independence Day and to present the scale and diversity of the Polish contribution to the United Kingdom. The campaign included 17 interviews with Poles or people of Polish origin who made Britain their home. And it also included a call for selfies.

“By showing their faces, and telling their stories, we are making the word immigrant more humane”, explained on an embassy Facebook post Jakub Krupa, the UK Correspondent of the Polish Press Agency who conducted the 17 interviews. “You can finally see who exactly are the ‘immigrants’ you hear so much about: they are extraordinary ordinary people just like me or you, with their personal dreams, struggles, ideas, hopes, and wishes,” he said.

The idea developed even further in 2016 when the Polish ministry of foreign affairs expanded the campaign to all embassies around the world.

“Show your Poland, no matter what part of the world you are in: on Mount Kosciuszko in Australia or at the Tadeusz Kosciuszko Memorial in front of the White House in Washington D.C.,” read a press release of the ministry. “Take a selfie with the Polish flag painted on your cheek on Józef Bem Street in Warsaw, or at the Statute of Józef Bem in Budapest. The list of places and symbols is open and your initiative counts. Then upload the photo to social media with #MyPolska.”

And here’s a heatmap posted on Twitter by Polityka w sieci on how the hashtag propagated and where it was mostly used.

A few years back, the European delegation to the United States launched a #EUselfie competition to promote EU Open House — every year, on or around May 9, European embassies in Washington DC open their doors to visitors to celebrate EU day in the US capital.

The initiative gathered many submissions on social media from both visitors and embassies’ staff.

More recently, the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC (Italy in US) celebrated National Selfie Day 2017 with a selfie taken by its interns and posted on the Embassy’s social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In response, the US Embassy in Rome, Italy responded with its own version.


As photography is evolving, so are selfies.

Back in February I visited Tufts University for a seminar with the students of the Tufts’ School of Law and Diplomacy. As I’m a sucker for selfies, I asked them to pose for one… But this time in 360 — later posting it on Twitter and Facebook.

It was not my first time using 360 for selfies. But it was my first time using Kuula, a social network for 360 selfies.

Anf for this post on #selfies for diplomats I created a Kuula gallery with some of the 360 selfies I took in the past couple of years, including at the White House with Obama and Renzi, and at the Embassy of Italy with Vint Cerf of Google — the father of the Internet — and with numerous panelists of the Embassy’s Digital Diplomacy Series.

Here’s the Kuula gallery:

This post is part of a series on social media for diplomats:

Follow my Digital Diplomacy publication here on Medium and recommend this post!

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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