Diplomatic Bloggers: The Absent is Always Wrong

That “Official Concern” Thingy/4

There are slightly over a hundred private blogs maintained by diplomatic personnel and their family members (Digger of Life After Jerusalem also has an extensive list). Mostly, the blogs were set up to stay in touch with family members and friends back home or as catalogs of their uncommon experiences overseas (local food, exotic travel, foreign culture, etc.). Sometimes, the blogs are a “thinking out loud” online journal on the challenges of life abroad – falling ill overseas, assisting in the repatriation of a deceased American, adjusting to life abroad, tackling 12-hour work in a mass casualty incident, trying to find one’s place amidst constant relocation – in the case of family members, flooded houses, horrendous traffic, eating salad seasoned with Clorox, or just the blahs of life when one is way from family and friends …

E. Wayne Merry recently wrote an op-ed in Washington Times: “In most developed countries, the diplomatic service enjoys a stature sorely lacking here. In part this is because the Foreign Service does not engage the American public, press and Congress.”

I tend to agree. In fact, listening to public officials justifying the lack of funding for the State Department, one often hears about the agency’s and the Foreign Service’s lack of a “natural constituency.” The lack of support in Congress and the American public on State Department and USAID programs is often attributed to the fact that the FS is not supported by a specific voting block (unlike the military with operations across many states, and local jobs, supported by senators and representatives). The USAID funding to development overseas is also often misunderstood even when the US spends less than 1% of the federal budget on development assistance.

But there is also another reason – the State Department, as well as USAID have not figured out how to effectively tell its story. The stories when told are vetted many rungs up so what the American public gets is mostly the “happy talk” and the lighter side of success – you know what I mean, you read them every month in the State magazine.

It’s no wonder that Congress and the American public remains enamored with the notion that diplomats are cookie pushers conducting diplomacy within the cocktail circuits. Have they heard of a family member who lost her hearing for lack of a medical facility, of children suffering from chronic respiratory problems because of bad air, of officers who put in 12-14 hours day with no overtime, of spouses struggling for lack of career options, of officers who are separated from families due to unaccompanied assignments … there are a lot more stories like that …

Figures and charts are nice to look at but people look at them and then forget about them; stories on the other hand, tend to linger longer, connect better and when told well, get passed along.

The Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) carries out the Secretary’s mandate to help the American public understand the importance of foreign affairs. But how many citizens went and write to their congressional representatives to help lobby for more funding for the State Department? Makes you wonder how effective it did on this area, considering the anemic funding in the last four years of the previous administration. In fact, I can count with my fingers the times when there were some real public reaction about the Foreign Service or our diplomats in recent memory — 1) made-up “controversy” (e.g Iraq staffing) , 2) some visa, passport, other scandals and 3) embassy attack or diplomatic casualty. I think empathy for the Service usually runs at the lower end of the stick.

Under PA is a program called “The Secretary’s Hometown Diplomats Program.” It is “designed to explain to America what we do and why it matters. We do this by tapping into our best resource: our people. Employees volunteer their time on scheduled trips back to their hometown (during home leave and hometown visits) to talk to local organizations, their elementary and high schools, their college alma maters, meet with state and local elected officials, and to participate in media interviews.”

But think about it — what if PA develop the Hometown Diplomats Program into a blog aggregator (similar to HuffPo, the Progressive Realist or the FCO) and includes several from the 100 or so private blogs to tell the story of the men and women in the Foreign Service and USAID? Instead of one diplomat reaching out to an audience in his/her hometown, the diplomat has the potential to reach a larger public audience online. It need not be a one-time encounter, it can even develop into an online community with ongoing conversations. Interested personnel can register as bloggers in their private capacity (and work in their own time) and can pre-select subjects that they are willing to write about (e.g. LGBT issues, life in the FS, languages and foreign culture, representing America, development work, transition and relocation, leadership or professional development, etc. etc.).

But those restrictions under the “of official concern” umbrella just would not work in the blogging universe. So if State wants to do this the right way, the regs need some tweaking.

For those who want to blog specifically about policy, PA can open up the official roll of bloggers to diplomats who are not necessarily doing a PA tour of duty. They do have guest bloggers over at DipNote occasionally but then — you never hear from the same blogger again; except for the Spokesman. The way I see it, the Spokesman already has the podium to talk about the official policy, he/she does not really need to be the primary blogger. Other folks with real names/titles should do that.

The FCO has been experimenting with digital diplomacy since 2007 but it provides some straight-forward rules and guidance: they insist that the bloggers think hard about what they are trying to achieve and who their target audience is before they begin. And they are asked to commit to posting regularly and moderating comments every day. Although they are offered tips on effective use of the medium, FCO bloggers are not told how to write.

Why am I harping on this? According to the 2008 Internet statistics, there are 220.1 million Internet users in the United States. Our Internet penetration rate is currently at 72.5% (the percentage of the total population of a given country or region that uses the Internet). That is the highest in North America.

In related stats, 54% of all online adults in the United States used the government sites. The generational differences in online activities specifically in the use of government sites are as follows:

  • Trailing boomers (age 41-50) – 64 %
  • Leading Boomers (51-59) – 60%
  • Gen X (29-40) – 56%

I just think that with effective use of technology, there is considerable opportunity to engage the American public on the work of the State Department and USAID. We don’t need more fact sheets and briefing papers. What these agencies for diplomacy and development need are more storytellers — not spin, just real stories from the trenches.

The absent is always wrong
. How much longer is State/USAID going to be absent from the online conversation that is bursting a thousandfold?

Randy Pausch used to say that “the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” I recognize that there are security issues, and the mindset of hoarding/protecting information as well, among specific challenges that need to be overcome. But that is all part of this fast changing fascinating new world. The real challenge is the organization’s ability and willingness to seize the moment, consider the brick walls, and find ways to operate from “what can’t be done” to “what is possible.”

My mate helpfully points out that if real folks write about the “realities” of FS life, that if might turn off applicants for the Foreign Service. Well, look — there is always that as a possibility. But considering that the Government pays a chunk of taxpayer money to train diplomats in languages and other functional skills, and to ship and house them and their families overseas — wouldn’t it make much more sense to have recruits who know exactly what they are getting into, rather than have recruits from cloud nine who flames out and quit when their expectations are not met?

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