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Re-tweeting The Ayatollah

“Have you ever received the message of Islam from any sources other than the media?” tweeted Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini in a recent letter to the youth of Europe and North America over the hashtag #Letter4U on January 22, 2015 (Khameini, 2015). On the very same day, the Prime Minister of Yemen announced his resignation and that of his cabinet on his Facebook page, explaining the act by saying “so that we are not made party to what is going on and what will happen” (Almosawa and Nordland, 2015). While the replication of official communications in social media has been taking place for a number of years, we believe that these two pronouncements in early 2015 represent a new level of social media engagement by government entities that needs to be examined more closely. In the case of the Ayatollah, the tweets in question were apparently re-posts from his Web site and not from any other official communique.


The social media profiles of Yemeni politicians and Iranian religious leaders are certainly not alone in cyberspace. Within the past few years, almost every official entity on the planet has created and even regularly used some form of social media platform, most commonly Twitter and Facebook, often translated as well as in original language versions. A very superficial survey of Twitter reveals Twitter accounts for the Embassy of Canada to Italy – in three languages, of course, Italian, French and English. We can also find the EU Delegation to Turkey and the official Twitter account of the Government of Singapore – @govsingapore. Notably, the account profile contains the following statement: “Your first stop (emphasis added) for the very latest policy announcements, information and news on Singapore”. In “This is your Government on Instagram”, Esquire reporter James Joiner created a list of social media marketing expenditures by a range of US government agencies from NASA to the Department of Homeland Security which, according to Joiner, spent $563,300 on non-alert social media spending between January 2013 and July 2014 (Joiner, 2014).

These additional interfaces are over and above Facebook and Twitter which feeds now almost obligatory for elected or aspiring politicians. While many of these outlets are very basic channels to communicate daily activities and policy positions, others have grown significantly more sophisticated, as a ranking member of the House Committee on Intelligence tweeted about his arrival in Iraq on what was supposed to be a secret mission in 2009 (Needleman, 2009). The opening of the 2016 presidential campaign will undoubtedly produce additional attempts to use social media to effect. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky’s Snapchat “interview” with CNN on January 27, 2015, will not be the last vain attempt to connect with a younger demographic (Bump, 2015).

The proliferation of social media activity by this very wide range of “official” entities, both domestic and international, raises some intriguing questions about where companies and other organizations should be investing their public affairs and government relations resources in the future. These resources have traditionally been allocated to lobbying and public affairs in national and regional capitals such as Washington, DC, and Brussels, engaging lawmakers and regulators both through official channels and networks of influence. Extensive research and monitoring support staffs have been funded to monitor and report on official outlets, digests of proposed legislation and the official speeches of lawmakers, among many other traditional sources. While it would be absurd to suggest that these investments will lose value in the short term, recent developments do indicate the need to look into the future of how we will interact with official institutions. There are several areas of potential impact that need to be explored.


What is immediately clear from these developments is that organizations will need to significantly expand the range of official entities they are monitoring in social media. On one level, it will be important to include governmental social media content in our monitoring in a much more systematic way to track what they are saying about regulatory issues, public policy and pending legislation.

Deep dive listening

Social listening tools have advanced to the stage where one can now find out peaks in conversation volume by topic area, when they happened and who contributed to them. By setting up queries to filter for a specific set of public policy social media channels, one can start to understand who is most prominent on social by topic.

Social listening can now also be used to determine who the second degree influencers are, meaning the most influential people who engage with, share, retweet, the politician or diplomat’s original content. This can be very helpful in determining specifically who to target and influence to support or offset the original message.


Even more significantly, we will be able to use social media metrics to gauge the level of public, national or international interest in an issue. Whether it is followership, “like” stats or re-Tweets/re-posts, all of the public interactions with the official narratives gives us a window on how engaged the public is.

Content performance analysis

Tools also now exist allowing one to compare the engagement levels of social content. This is a very useful means of determining what words and visuals are resonating most effectively with people and affords one the ability to discern which public figure and which issue really has a hand on the public’s pulse.

Network mapping

Another critical dimension that opens up to us as official entities migrate more “first notice” content to social media is the flip side of the previous coin. To the extent that they themselves repost, re-Tweet and share content from others, we are able to build up a picture of the voices they are listening to and of the conversations that they are tracking. Over the long term, public affairs professionals can build up a rich picture of the networks of influence of the government entities and individuals that are of most compelling interest to them. Once these portraits or “influencer maps” have been created, a number of different engagement strategies can be put into practice.

Thought leadership engagement

These strategies include creating thought leadership events, involving those who influence the target entity and inviting its representatives to participate on a topic of mutual interest. It signals the desire to engage and create an ongoing conversation. An even simpler strategy is to re-Tweet or re-post the same or similar content within your own blog or Twitter feed. This will be picked up by the agency/individual you are seeking to engage and communicate that you share interests with them. This mutual listening can help set the stage for a richer real world interaction.

“Re-tweeting the Ayatollah” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 36 Issue: 2, pp.49 – 52, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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