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For Canada, it’s time to join the conversation

For Canada, it’s time to join the conversation

Posted by Bruce McDougall on June 30, 2014

Bureaucracies are in the business of controlling risk, not embracing it. But risk, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Social media, for example, threaten the conventional patterns of behaviour in a bureaucracy. Faced with the risk of spontaneous communication, Canada’s government prohibits its civil servants from sending tweets, emails or Facebook messages without first submitting them to review, a process that can take as long as two weeks.

For billions of non-government participants throughout the world, however, social media presents not a risk but an unlimited opportunity to communicate, inform, entertain, clarify, discuss, debate, evaluate, research, measure, invite, dismiss, contribute, promote, warn, applaud and greet each other. And they can do all this in seconds. If government policy prevents Canada’s bureaucrats from seizing this opportunity, no one will suffer except Canada itself.

Outside of government, most Canadians have embraced the world of social media. But Canada and the U.S. both lag behind Latin America in numbers of social media users and in the growth of those numbers. In Canada, 19 million people use Facebook compared to 158 million in the U.S. and 179 million in Latin America. Almost 98% of Latin American Internet users participate in networking channels such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, compared to 67% in the U.S., and the largest group of users in Latin America are between the ages of 15 and 24. By 2017, the number of Latin American social media users is expected to grow by 114%, to almost 288 million, compared to growth of 25% in North America.

In the past two years, the number of Facebook users in South America has doubled. In Brazil alone, more than 20 million users signed up in 2012, and millions more joined Facebook in Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia. Latin Americans spend almost 10 hours a month on social media, almost twice as long as North Americans.

Considering these numbers, it’s no wonder that media advertising is expected to grow over the next three years in Latin America by 71%.  Tourism will contribute to this growth. “Multi-national hotel operators such as IHG, Marriott and Starwood are racing to plant their flags in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina,” says a report from ReviewPro. “Social media will ultimately play a role in how the brands reach out and communicate with their customers.”  

Whether its government knows it or not, in the world of social media, Canada is just a brand like any other, and the more people who recognize and like the brand, the better. By muzzling the people who work on behalf of this country, Canada’s leaders are keeping the world in the dark about this country.

While Canada waves flags and dresses its athletes in nifty red uniforms, other countries have become far bolder about embracing social media, abandoning their pre-screened posturing and inviting the world to become their followers. “Social media are now indispensable to our core tasks: information harvesting, analysis, influence, promotion of English as the code for cyberspace, crisis management, commercial work,” says Tom Fletcher, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon. “Imagine a reception at which all your key contacts were interacting. You would not stand in the corner silently or shouting platitudes.”

Countries like the U.S., the UK and Australia understand that the opportunities presented by spontaneous interaction far outweigh the risk of exposing a human face behind a tweet. As former Australian Prime minister Kevin Rudd observes, Twitter channels or Facebook pages that rely solely on one-way broadcasts tend to be “boring” and attract few followers.

“Without a following, messages risk disappearing into the ether, without being seen or read,” says Roland Paris, founding director of the Centre for International Policy Studies. Users of social media who do not engage in substantive, real-time exchanges are unlikely to make their voices heard.  Successful twiplomats, such as Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt (who has 204,340 Twitter followers as compared to John Baird’s 13,276) seem to understand this intuitively,” says Roland Paris.

“People are more likely to stick around to read your press releases if they know something about you as a person.”

That goes for countries, too.

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