Diplomacy in 140 characters: World leaders take to Twitter, gain followers

Among world leaders who engage in “twiplomacy” — the use of Twitter for diplomatic relations — President Barack Obama wins superlatives for the most followers but Pope Francis is the most influential, according to a new survey by Burson-Marsteller.

The global public relations and communications firm found that more than three-quarters of world leaders are on Twitter — the online social networking service that limits messages known as tweets to 140 characters.

It seems everyone wants to keep up with the thoughts and activities of the president of the United States, who has more than 34.5 million Twitter followers. But Obama isn’t the best at following back other world leaders.

While 148 world leaders and governments follow the president, @BarackObama, @WhiteHouse and @StateDept only mutually followed four of them, according to the study, Twiplomacy.

It analyzed 505 top government accounts in 153 countries. Almost half were personal accounts of heads of state, heads of government, foreign ministers and their institutions. About one-third of world leaders personally tweeted.

The study said all 45 European governments are on Twitter, and, with the exception of Suriname, all Latin American countries are, too. In North America, 79 percent of leading government officials have Twitter accounts. It falls off slightly for Asia and Africa, where 76 percent and 71 percent of governments, respectively, use Twitter.

When Burson-Marsteller did its first Twiplomacy study last year, it concentrated on finding out how countries used Twitter to promote themselves.

“We found that of 193 U.N. member states, only nine owned their own Twitter handles,’’ said Santiago Fittipaldi, public affairs director in Burson-Marsteller’s Miami office. “Now, world leaders are finding new uses for Twitter.’’

They’re using it not only to tout their brands but also to communicate with their citizens, attack the opposition, break news, send out automated news feeds and engage with each other.

Growing networks

Sixty-eight percent had mutual connections, setting up the potential for “twiplomacy,” said Fittipaldi.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is the best connected, according to the study, with 44 mutual connections with other world leaders.

Even relative newcomers can rapidly rise to the top of the Twitter heap.

Pope Francis, who started to tweet under the handle @pontifex on March 17 — a few days after he was elected pope — has rapidly become a Twitter star even though he has only sent out about 100 tweets. The study deemed him most influential based on the number of times people share his tweets, an average of 11,000 retweets per message on his Spanish-language account.

In contrast, Obama, who was the first world leader to sign up for Twitter in 2007, averages 2,309 retweets for every tweet he sends.

Francis’ very first tweet — “Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me” — has been shared more than 37,000 times in English and more than 41,000 times in Spanish.

While the pope’s English-language account had 2.76 million followers on Friday, he follows just eight accounts, and they are all his own in eight different languages. Adding all his accounts together gives the pope well over seven million followers

Another relative newcomer to head-of-state tweeting, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro also leads the world — for most daily tweets. He averages 41 messages per day, according to the study.

Maduro, @NicolasMaduro, currently has 1.25 million followers, just a fraction of those who followed his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, who was avidly followed by Venezuelan citizens, the opposition and journalists as he dribbled out tweets on his long-running fight with cancer.

He last took to Twitter on February 18 — the day he returned home to Venezuela from Cuba where he went for treatment. His final tweet: “I still cling to Christ and I am confident in my doctors and nurses. Always toward victory! We shall live and we shall conquer!’’ By March 6, he was dead.

Chávez, @chavezcandanga, still has more followers, 4.19 million, than any living Latin American president. In fact, many still follow his account.

Suspicious of Twitter before he became one of the site’s most ardent users, Chávez at various times called it a hotbed for counter-revolutionaries and said it was a breeding ground for “conspiracy.”

But soon enough, he discovered its value for breaking news, like the time he live-tweeted the exhumation of South American liberator Simón Bolivar at 3 a.m.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, @rmartinelli, also had a recent Twitter scoop. On July 15, Martinelli sent out the first picture of Cuban missile equipment found aboard a North Korean flagged vessel that was seized before it could transit the Panama Canal.

“Panama captured a North Korean-flagged vessel coming from Cuba with an undeclared cargo of weaponry,’’ he tweeted. Then he followed up with more details, “The material was hidden under a shipment of sugar.’’

Burson-Marsteller also analyzed which heads of state are the most conversational, meaning who has the highest percentage of replies to other Twitter users. Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi took those honors with 96 percent of his tweets being @replies.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also broke into the top five for chattiness and had the highest percentage of replies of any president in Latin America.

Correa often uses his Twitter account, @MashiRafael, to take on political rivals but mainly the press.

He often fact-checks and points out errors in media coverage. After he granted an interview to the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, he tweeted about the interview five times, demanding corrections and retractions.

When the local Vanguardia magazine said it was closing because of a new media law, Correa took to Twitter to fire back. “Vanguardia says it’s closing due to the new Communications Law,” he wrote. “So why isn’t Diario La Hora [newspaper] of the same owner closing? Liarrrrs…”

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, @CFKArgentina, is the most followed living Latin America president and ranks 10th worldwide, narrowly edging out Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, @EPN, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, @JuanManSantos.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, @dilmabr, ranks 14th worldwide with nearly 1.88 million followers, although she hasn’t tweeted since December 2010, a few months after she won election. Still, her followers keep growing, Fittipaldi said.


Some leaders are even using the Twiplomacy study to promote themselves. “I just made the top 50 of the best connected world leaders on Twitter!’’ Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, @LaurentLamothe, tweeted on Wednesday when the study was released.

Then he followed up with three more tweets on his “twiplomacy” prowess.

That provoked a reply from Claujodas Accilien, @cjodas, who lives in a small town in northern Haiti: “Mr. PM this is your second tweet about the same subject, obviously you are very proud of the results of that study but… it would be more relevant if you were active in the field.’’

Miami Herald South American correspondent Jim Wyss, @jimwyss, and Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles, @jacquiecharles, contributed to this report. Mimi Whitefield tweets @heraldmimi.