The government’s social media strategy had a heart warming win last month, during celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. German Foreign ministry’s @GermanyDiplo channel generated more than 9,900 retweets with an English languate tweet: “Tonight #Berlin is divided again… … by balloons lighting up route of the former #Wall via @schmidtsdorf #Lichtgrenze,” accompanied by a photograph of the 8000 illuminated helium-filled white balloons that marked the course of the former Berlin Wall.
The tweet was read the world over, especially in in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. More than 4,000 Twitter users “favourited” the tweet, marking it out for special attention from their readers. German soft power is rarely so effective.
German government ministries have only recently begun using social media as a communication tool.
Martin Fuchs, a political adviser specializing in social networks and operator of the blog “Hamburger Wahlbeobachter” (Hamburg Election Observer), sees a clear trend. “Perhaps 20 to 30 percent of the 631 members of the Bundestag use social networks professionally,” said Mr. Fuchs.
“Whether much attention is paid to social networks depends heavily on the people at the top.”
Except for a few exceptions, such as the German Interior Ministry, which does not have either a Twitter or a Facebook account, most departments are getting on social media. And many are seeking the help of professional consultants to do so.
“There has been an extreme push (to social media) in the ministries,” said Mr. Fuchs. The change in government from the previous coalition of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) to the current coalition of the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has marked the beginning of change in the German government.
Two departments – the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Family Affairs have been especially enthusiastic about expanding their use of social networks. “Digital diplomacy is taking on greater significance,which is why it’s important for Germany to have a perceptible voice.” said Sebastian Fischer, who manages online communications at the Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Fischer manages a staff of seven employees, two of whom are devoted entirely to Facebook. They all also have access to the Twitter account. The Foreign Ministry itself has a German-language Facebook page, while German embassies abroad operate 90 Facebook pages and 40 Twitter accounts between them.
About 210,000 people now follow its German-language Twitter channel, @AuswaertigesAmt, while about 400,000 Twitter users follow its English-language channel, @GermanyDiplo. A number of German embassies, including the ones in Cairo, Tunis and Dhaka, have more than 100,000 Facebook fans each.
The Ministry of Family Affairs has also taken to social media, and has a Twitter account and plans a Facebook page next year. Manuela Schwesig, the German family minister, is active on both Twitter and Facebook. She manages her own accounts, with some in-house support.
By contrast, the Interior ministry is very much off line. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) has objected to others tweeting in his name, saying this would undermine the medium’s credibility. He also insists there is no budget for social media.
Its Internet office consists of only one-and-a-half positions, mainly to keep the website up to date. “But there are internal discussions over the use of social networks,” said spokesman Tobias Plate.
The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walther Steinmeier makes vine videos – this one was made to encourage the German national team during the World Cup this year.
Attitudes such as those in the interior ministry show just how far Germany is still lagging behind most countries. In the United States, each department will have at least one social media channel.
And while President Barak Obama’s office has its own accounts , Germany’s often inscrutable chancellor Angela Merkel has so far resisted her own Twitter account.
“She has examined the issue several times, but she doesn’t feel comfortable with it and deliberately opted against it,” Mr. Fuchs said. “This is also a sign of social media competency.”
Christian Tretbar is online editor at the Berlin-based daily, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org