The @Sweden Debate – From the Eyes of a PR Swede

I suppose no one missed the highly debated story of @Sweden. To give you a short background, Sweden is the first country in the world to hand over the country’s official Twitter account to its citizens. The project, called Curators of Sweden, is an initiative of the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden, both part of NSU, the National Board for the promotion of Sweden. Every week another person receives exclusivity to present his or her own views on the Twitter account @sweden, which aims to present the country of Sweden through a mix of skills, experiences and opinions.

The start of all the fuzz – “the Jew tweets”
Although the @sweden account has been active since December, it didn’t become the topic of discussions all over the world until last week. The author of the account last week, Sonja Abrahamsson, wrote a couple of controversial tweets – controversial both in her opinions and how she expressed them:

Opinions and questions began surfacing after the Swedish public – and the world – read these tweets. As a Swede myself, I both choked and laughed when I saw some of the presumptions made about all Swedes based on this content. One of the more disturbing ones for me was an article in The Jerusalem Post that writes: “Putting the citizens in charge certainly highlights Sweden’s liberalism, but it also exposes the putrid underbelly of rising anti-Semitism in Sweden.” To make that assumption about the Swedish people based on these tweets I think is both horrific and offending. On the other hand, the tweets seem to have raised some relevant questions, according to the blog post, “5 reasons why @sweden is good for the Jews.” The only thing about the tweets that seems to be clear is that there is a difference in opinion.

Is it right to hand the @Sweden account to the people?

I will not delve deeper into the infamous “Jew tweets” right now (that’s another blog post altogether). Instead I would like to address the question most relevant for a PR person, and one that has been asked by a number of professionals over the past week: Is it right to hand the Twitter account over to the people, especially with such limited restrictions and highly controversial people as authors?

Firstly, I would like to take a step back and remember what the group behind the Curators of Sweden project was hoping to achieve when starting the initiative. The @Sweden account was created to raise awareness about Sweden. There is no question that the awareness was raised, but it is important to think about what values are connected with Sweden as a result as well.

One important thing to remember here is that the @Sweden account is about uncensored content curation and to show subjective, different views, of both Sweden and of the Swedes. As such, the tweeters of the @Sweden account have very few restrictions – they only have three guidelines to adhere to according to Maria Ziv, the Marketing Manager of Visit Sweden, according to an article in Swedish media publication Resume:

According to the guidelines, the tweeters must not:

  • Try to sell or advertise for products or services
  • Be a threat to national security
  • Incite racial hatred

The interesting thing here is that there have been two phases of reactions to the tweets. The first wave of reactions was quite negative, for instance Mashable’s post saying that @Sweden’s Twitter experiment goes awry. After a couple of days some more positive views were made public – I think Digital McGyver expresses many of them very well.

The campaign can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Judging just by the numbers, @Sweden is a raving success. At the start of 2012 the account had just above 10,000 followers – and today it has reached more than 60,000, with a high influence, judging by their Klout score of 76.This implies that VisitSweden has been successful in reaching the objective to increase the awareness of Sweden.

However, the qualitative factors are equally important. They are both positive and negative in this case. The negative consequences are immediate and easy to see; people may connect Sweden with views that can seem ignorant or even racist.

What about the positive reactions then?

The positive outcomes may be harder to see, but they are there, and they may actually be more long-term than the negative ones.

The creators of @Sweden succeeded in their goal of being completely transparent, displaying a number of different uncensored views on current topics and life situations of Swedish citizens. Sweden is an open country with freedom of expression, which is one important point that’s been made clear. It is a country with a wide array of opinions, cultures and backgrounds – and it is open enough to let them all shine through.

As a PR person I also see that the authenticity and freedom of expression of the people communicating behind the account is its main strength. In a time when company Twitter accounts are more and more often managed by marketing staff with similar communication styles, my firm belief is that future successes lie in being authentic, letting real people shine through and daring to be different.

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