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A DFATD digital diplomacy guru hangs up his hat

By Kristen Shane      

Robin MacNab has been tweeting from his Waterloo post since 2009.

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On Sept. 14 at 8:27 a.m., a Monday morning at the start of the workday, Robin MacNab booted up his Twitter profile and wrote: “Damn! Another work week here already!  Oh …. wait a minute……”

Not this week, not any more weeks.

After 44 years as a Canadian foreign service officer, the Friday before was his last day on the job.

That, too, he tweeted. In return, he received more than 50 messages of congratulations and thanks from Canadian ambassadors and other diplomats, work acquaintances and even a local member of Parliament at his last posting, Waterloo.

“The #digitaldiplomacy community is losing one of its major players!” tweeted Barbara Dufresne, identified on her Twitter profile as a media relations officer at Environment Canada and former employee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

Mr. MacNab has gained a reputation as one of the most prolific DFATD tweeters. He was one of the department’s earliest Twitter users @RobinMacNab.

A news junkie at heart, he had been sending emails occasionally to some colleagues with links to news he’d found interesting, including some from obscure sources.

He thought he might start a webpage to aggregate his news picks. Then came Twitter.

His first tweet was a link to a New York Times article he thought was interesting.

“As soon as I sent that first tweet, the lightbulb came on that: Gee, this is what I’m looking for. I can just tell people to follow me on Twitter.”

Six years later, more than 3,900 people have.

Mr. MacNab joined the social media site at around the same time he arrived in the Waterloo region to helm a one-person office as a trade commissioner.

“[There were] a lot of tech people in the Waterloo region. And they were into Twitter, the people that I wanted to get to know. So I thought this is a way for me to get to know them. I’ll follow them on Twitter, the key ones were on Twitter, and I’ll start tweeting some stuff about technology maybe that might interest them.”

That got him known in the community fairly quickly, he said.

When the department got on board officially a few years later, he started slipping in some government messages amid his other tweets.

He’s also a fan of retweeting colleagues’ posts.

“I saw it as a way of encouraging some of the new people coming on to Twitter in the department and also getting their word out.”

He created a public list of DFATD tweeters with more than 1,100 names. The department maintains its own list, DFATD at Home & Abroad, with 314 members.

Though he’s never been a mentor in any official capacity, Mr. MacNab is looked up to by colleagues as a model public-servant tweeter.

His advice for diplomats too timid to tweet?

“I wasn’t an official departmental tweeter, but I identified myself as an officer of the department. So there’s a delicate line. You have to be very careful not to express personal views,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “You can’t just be a mouthpiece for the organization because people will just see it just as propaganda, sort of thing. So you have to strike the right balance between interesting stuff generally, so people will want to follow you, and then you use an occasion to get in an important message now and again.”

Twice a one-man band

He volunteered to take the posting in the southern Ontario tech hub in 2008 after six years at another regional office in Toronto.

“It’s been kind of fun as a one-person office,” he said in a phone interview less than a week after he retired.

He’d done it before as part of a pilot project in the 1980s when the department asked him to set one up in Houston, Texas, an important city for the oil and gas business globally.

“I tell people when I do that kind of job it’s the only time I’m able to get along with the people I work with,” he quipped. “But it is kind of fun, because it sort of reduces the bureaucracy to a minimum, and you can really focus on the main things.”

It was during his time in Houston that Canada’s National Energy Program, hated by the oil and gas community both in western Canada and the United States, was ending. He and the Alberta representative there worked together to roll out the welcome mat to industry leaders in Houston and let them know Canada was open for business.

He recalls speaking to Conoco executives who said they had pulled out of Canada.

“We really convinced them to come back to Canada, and that really created a lot of jobs eventually.”

Besides the Fortune 500 types, he said he’s worked a lot over the years as a trade commissioner helping small companies.

“Sometimes family-owned, they don’t employ a lot of people—couple of dozen maybe, many of them—but they seem to work 7/24 just to keep the place going. And so there’s a lot of job satisfaction in being able to help companies like that on the international scene. I can look back on really making a difference to some of them.”

Besides Houston, he was posted to Seattle, Jakarta, Canada’s mission to NATO in Brussels and Atlanta twice (both his first and last postings abroad as a trade officer).

It was on that first Atlanta posting, a secondment with the trade commissioner service, when he caught the trade bug. He had started his career in the political stream of the old external affairs department for the first nine years.

When the 68-year-old spoke shortly after retiring, he said he was still trying to decide what to do with his time. Reading books, rather than just current affairs, was high on the agenda.

“My wife would like me out of the house,” he joked.

They bought a house in the small town of New Hamburg, just outside Kitchener, and are happy to stay there.

And, of course, he hasn't left Twitter. He still tweets several times a day.

With big shoes to fill is Syed Sameer Ahmed, the new Waterloo region trade commissioner, who is stepping into the role after a four-year posting to the United Arab Emirates, according to his Twitter page.

Nigeria marks national day with chargé

Nigeria’s high commissioner, Ojo Maduekwe, has finished his posting, and his deputy, Charles Onianwa, has completed his tour of duty too.

Mr. Maduekwe knew his time in Canada was coming to an end when his party lost government in a March election. A former foreign minister with that government, he was happy with the clean handover of power but knew he would soon be out of his job of three years.

He was gone by the end of summer. And Mr. Onianwa, the deputy Mr. Maduekwe worked with throughout his mandate who he said was a career diplomat, has left his posting too, the high commission confirmed.

Last week’s independence day celebration at the Chateau Laurier hotel was helmed by Chargé d’Affaires Ja’afar Balarabe, who’s worked at the high commission as a minister since June 2014.

There's no word yet on when a new high commissioner will arrive.

kshane@embassynews.ca

@kristenshane1

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