The Israeli Consulate out of New York participated in a “citizen’s press conference” about on December 30th using Twitter, an increasingly popular social media platform.

Consider it a public relations coup. The Government of Israel’s innovative tactics have created a tidal wave of attention and publicity online and offline, helping ensure that Israel’s message is being heard.

In fact, while the press conference was planned to last only two hours, the popularity of the event in which the Consulate shared information — in real time — about the conflict in Gaza  stretched far beyond the allotted time by hours. Indeed, the conversation about the event is still occurring a day later and will likely continue online for days, if not weeks, to come. Twitter users commonly share (or “retweet”) other users’ responses as a way of further broadcasting a message to their followers online. This creates a viral environment in which the Consulate’s answers to questions are broadcast in compound form to networks of networks of participants for days on end.

When asked by once participant what prompted the unique “Twitter press conference” format, David Saranga, a spokesman for the Consulate, responded that Israel had a responsibility to correct “unreliable information” being issued by Hamas and others online and to make sure that Israel had an “official voice” on Twitter, where so much information was being spread so rapidly.

Reports say that this citizens’ news conference may be the first of its kind – in particular, by a government entity – and the results deserve a genuine analysis.

One of the biggest problems with Twitter is the lack of organization in conversation.  The amount of information, of various voices participating in the conversation, can be a bit overwhelming. The amount of competing tweeting and retweeting and questions being asked would be enough to confuse anyone trying to follow the conversation.

The second, and very real issue with Twitter, is the strict limit on the characters used in a response.  The Israeli Consulate, at times was forced to use the language of text messaging, shortening words to single letters (such as, “you” to just “u”) to respond under the alloted space. This was later corrected in the transcript of the press conference which was posted to one of their websites, Israel Politik.  However, when acting as the “official voice,” some CEOs and executives may find this form of communication confusing and frustrating.

Another problem with such limitations, at least for a news conference, is that some questions are complex, requiring more than 140 characters to answer intelligently. Brevity is always a plus unless it dips into incoherence or trite non-answers. For a news conference on an issue as serious and complex and important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one wonders whether the space limitations of Twitter can accommodate the necessary depth of conversation.

Problems aside, the Israeli Consulate took a big risk in taking part in a citizen’s press conference.  The important question is – did it work? Twitter has grown exponentially since its start, and has a loyal following among its users.  Information, correct or not, has the ability to spread like wildfire, especially considering that users of Twitter often spread their message far and wide through many new media avenues and with astonishing rapidity.  It is a communicators Rapid Response dream (or nightmare).

The Israeli Consulate’s intentions, therefore, were good. Whether Consulate staff liked it or not, information is being spread rapidly online via resources like Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere. The Consulate is right to acknowledge this reality and attempt to participate and shape the messaging taking place about the Hows and Whys of the current Israeli air raids in Gaza. The Government of Israel clearly understands that it must engage this battlefield, too, and ensure it pushes get correct, reliable information to the public – otherwise, its opponents will dominate this increasingly influential public relations and public diplomacy arena.

So while the “citizen’s press conference” may not have been as effective as desired (no reports yet about how Israeli leaders feel about the outcome), the use of Twitter in a public affairs strategy, is what is really important. The truth is that no real organization – government, Fortune 500, or other – can exist without positioning themselves in the new media world.  And Israel did just that.

Don’t expect these “citizen’s press conferences” to go away. Whether Twitter becomes the venue of choice (or alternatives such as blog sites or other social networking platforms) isn’t the point; the point is that any successful public relations strategy is going to have to go beyond the old paradigm of speaking to traditional media and waiting for reporters to convey the message. In today’s communications environment, you have to speak directly to the public.

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with Twitter’s limitations:

1.)    Use separate hashtags for questions and answers. (Hashtags aggregate information around one topic. The consulate did use a hashtag for the news conference, but it may have been more productive to use hashtags for individual questions so that these separate conversations could be followed more easily.)

2.)    Take questions from Twitter users prior to the press conference and Tweet answers. This can help kick off the event and even establish certain lines of conversation that hold the attention of most of the participants. That may lesson the confusion of one-off questions that go nowhere.

3.)    Follow Israel’s lead: Provide a transcript (Bloggers and social media participants love having a transcript to which they can link when they write their posts.  It also allows you to avoid having your only message on the Internet written in the sometimes confusion language of “u” and “r”.)