Will McCants’ Lost in Cyberspace and the State Dept’s Missing Balls

On December 4, we wrote about the State Dept rewriting the media engagement rules for employees in the wake of the Peter Van Buren affair.

A blog pal wrote, asking if we knew that we caused a stir in the Truman building.  Like “State did not have their talking points or justifications in order.”

Talking points need clearance, too.  Oh dear.

The piece was  picked up by Charles Cooper of C|Net on December 5, and he actually got an official email response from State’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner of the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Provisions in the Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual are constantly under review. We are in the process of updating the regulations governing publication — both traditional and digital — to recognize the dynamic and decentralized nature of the 21st century information environment. The updates are still in progress and not final. They will be public, like all of our regulations, when they are final.

Not  a bad response.  But it probably means, it gets updated every time something hits the fan.

3 FAM 4170 for Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching  was last updated in 2009. All except one of the sub-rules date back to 2005.

The rules for Using Social Media in the State Department are listed in 5 FAM 790 and released in June 2010.  One of State’s self-identified media gurus once told us that this reg is not perfect; but so far we have not seen any effort to improved it.

Once the rules are in the books, it’ll take sometime before the regs gets another update.

A few days after the WaPo and C|Net articles, Will McCants, an analyst at CNA and a former senior adviser for countering violent extremism at the State Department as well as the author of a DoD-commissioned study of how to communicate with foreign audiences using social media, wrote Lost in Cyberspace in Foreign Policy. Excerpt below:

Although the review began before the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted controversial denunciations of the anti-Mohamed YouTube clip that sparked riots in September, friends at State tell me that Embassy Cairo’s tweets — which were not approved by Washington — gave added urgency to the effort to draft new guidelines for online behavior. State’s contemplated restrictions on its employees’ use of Twitter do not arise from a misunderstanding of a medium; some of Twitter’s most prominent members, including Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, work or have worked at State. Rather, State worries that the freewheeling, uncontrollable environment of Twitter could lead the public interpret the tweets of its employees as representing the official U.S. position on sensitive issues.
[…]
“The more State allows its employees to tweet during periods of calm, the more likely it will be that the institution can weed out problem tweeters and elevate those who have done a good job cultivating a community of interest.”

There is also something to be said for creating a little distance between the official U.S. position declared by a State spokesperson and tweets from embassy spokespeople and employees. State can take a long time formulating messages in response to crises because it has to vet them in many offices and, often, with the national security staff in the White House. By allowing embassy tweeters to message on their own, State will get early indications of what works and what doesn’t for the various audiences it is trying to reach.

Read in full over at FP – Lost in Cyberspace.

Attracted lots of eyeballs. Fun twittersation follows the FP article.

twittersation updated fam

Even @NickKristof  waded in and then others, too.

@NickKristof If the State Dept is really thinking about 2-day vetting of tweets, that’s the dumbest idea ever.

@AlecJRoss “@Diplopundit @emilcDC @thenewdiplomats @tomistweeting My team involved in drafting/approving. Not even close to what has been blogged.”

 

Whoops! Cushy tushy hurts! But teh-heh!

Here is a curious thing.  The Public Affairs guy responded to C|Net earlier on, and then Mr. Ross took to the spin floor later on.  Note that Alec J. Ross may be the senior advisor at the Office of the Secretary of State, but the clearing office for all matters in the Big House is located within the Bureau of Public Affairs, an office in the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. How involved is his team in “drafting/approving” the regs we may never know. But there are multiple offices involved in the drafting and clearance of the regs not just one.

Perhaps somebody should get in touch?

So then, Alec J. Ross whose actual title if you don’t know it yet is senior advisor for innovation at the Office of the Secretary of State, responded to Will McCants’s piece with:

Updating our social-media guidelines will help make the State Dept MORE open and social media-centric, not less open. It will also make us faster.

EXISTING guidelines allow a 30-day review period for all forms of public communication, including those intended for online publications and social media, though in practice review and response is much quicker. That means that the policy we have in place NOW allows us a 30-day review period. If the DRAFT guidelines go into effect as they are (and they’re still draft), that would shrink from 30 days to two days for a small subset of content. It doesn’t mean that we would take the two days or that it would increase the number of social media posts that are reviewed. We just want to provide an outside window by which employees are promised a response. “

Somebody walked that statement to the PA clearance office, huh?  And since Mr. Ross is practically a Twitter national, he also tweeted the author and got an immediate response.

@will_mccants
oops, should have submitted my article 4 review RT @AlecJRoss: @will_mccants In future please get in touch before publishing on this topic.

So cute!

Okay, then, Mr. Ross’s response sounds good.  Looking forward to a fantastic “MORE open and social media-centric” final rule.  But hey, don’t forget, 5 FAM 790on Using Social Media needs a good scrubbing, too.  We’ll have a separate post on how well the 30 day clearance rule rocks outside the studio.

But on social media, the demand for almost immediate response carries an inherent risk.  The question is how much are you willing to risk? And what about those who are “engaging” in the the public sphere in their personal capacity? How tolerant is your organization to perceived mistakes that will inevitably happen?

We remember that Mr. Ross said once, “We”re willing to make mistakes of commission rather than omission.”

Just because he said it, does not make it so.

Anyway, wasn’t US Embassy Egypt’s Larry Schwartz thrown under the bus because of those ‘er “mistakes of commission?” Recalled anyone  with balls from State’s 21st century statecraft shop who went online to defend our man in Cairo?

We don’t recall Mr. Ross or anyone at State with a Twitter handle defending the poor sod at the US Embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of that controversial statement and tweets following the mob attack there in September. The statement and the tweets could have only been approved by the Chief of Mission in Cairo because that’s where the clearance authority is delegated per FAM regulations.

See more here. The notion that the embassy statement was sent to Main State for clearance when there was a senior PA officer at post, or that the PAO was specifically told not to use it and he went ahead and did it anyway is just way too ludicrous. That’s not how careers are built at State.

And really dudes — if the mob is going over your walls, and the police is not coming, you want to try and diffuse the situation rather than throw petrol bombs at the crowd. So …

President Obama, who does not hold office at the State Department did offer muted support which is better than nothing: “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”

Secretary Clinton said what? Sorry, can’t hear you.

Still, in October, unnamed State Dept officials told the WSJ that Mr. Schwartz had been on temporary assignment in Cairo and has been given a new “permanent position” in Washington.  They made the relocation sounds like a promotion.  While a TDY assignment to Cairo is not unheard of, Egypt is not/not a Hard to Fill post. Which means assignments are formalized a year before an FSO is actually assigned there.  Prior to Cairo, Mr. Schwartz was the Director for Planning, Policy, and Resources at the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  As to Mr. Schwartz being given a new permanent position, he is not listed anywhere on the State Dept’s current directory.  Anyone know if he even has a real desk there?

Perhaps State is learning.  Last November when @USEmbassyCairo made another splash on Twitter, at least the Near Eastern Affairs bureau spokesman showed up for some sort of “we’ve got your back” moment.

That’s a good thing.  And it should help, too if you stop throwing your guys under the bus.

domani spero sig

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Digital Diplomacy, People, Regulations, Social Media, State Department, Technology and Work

2 responses to “Will McCants’ Lost in Cyberspace and the State Dept’s Missing Balls

  1. Thanks for the link. I think we agree on how fatuous Alec Ross can seem, especially in a setting like Pakistan, and how flimsy his arguments are when he tries to treat the American press the way Putin treats Russian journalists who won’t just cut and paste him (although Will McCants did — it’s never enough).

    However, I think we disagree about Larry Schwartz’s statement in Cairo. I certainly take the point that in a terrible crisis like this, with the mob at your gate, you do the best you can under fire.

    But I can’t help thinking that there’s a lot missing here because Schwartz is steeped in a certain State Department faction’s mindset that tends to minimize terrorism and look for developmental reasons for it that supposedly we can fix with more aid programs and better politics.

    My own critique of the Cairo statement is that the US officials there, including Schwartz, didn’t make use of the very hard-won language of the jointly sponsored US-Egyptian resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. Now, that may seem somewhat exotic, but a lot of top IO time and State time went into shepherding that through, and surely the post should have known about it. It ended up being able to condemn hateful speech, but still insist that it not be prosecuted unless it incited imminent violence.

    And so the language to have included in any statement in Egypt should have tracked that resolution, condemning hate but saying that the video could not be prosecuted because in fact it did not call for imminent violence — and that responding to such hate with violence would only harm more people. There’s a way to condemn hateful speech without undermining the First Amendment, and while it’s a bit tricky, I don’t think the concept is that hard to espouse.

  2. jc

    If you are looking for Larry Schwartz, try the Office of The Special Coordinator For Middle East Transitions (MET)

    http://www.state.gov/s/d/met/index.htm

    I do *not* know the details of Larry’s recent assignments, but would note that in the type of positions he has held recently, assignments may be made less far in advance than for typical FS positions: e.g. a new high level official arrives and wants to select his/her own team of senior leadership.

    Ambassador Taylor, the Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions has served as a political appointee under both Democratic and Republican administrations (dating back to the Clinton administration).

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