Web 2.0 Roundup: US Embassy Manila

From US Embassy Manila via Facebook

Last week, the US Embassy in Manila had “Twitter Week.” The occasion marked the official launch of the embassy’s twin sites in Twitter and Facebook. In announcing the new online engagement, the US Ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney writes in her blog:

“At the U.S. Embassy in Manila, we use all sorts of modern technology to stay in touch, and we want more people to have virtual access to us and our activities. We have a new U.S. Embassy Manila Facebook page, along with our Embassy website, to share stories, news and photos with you.”

Ambassador Kenney is one of the very few US Ambassadors with an official blog, and the only one with a blog hosted in America.gov. As can be expected the topic she addresses in her blog are normally selective, noncontroversial and usually tied to her official events like US Navy ship visits here and here, USAID projects, the passing of President Aquino and marking 9/11. But in late September when Typhoon Ketsana caused widespread flooding in Metro Manila and nearby areas, and in the relief operation that followed, she was able to use her blog here and here, to give insight into the calamity on the ground and share online what the USG was trying to do to help. And none of it looked like boiler-plate language that you see in cables or in press releases. In one of her blog posts she writes:

“I have to start this blog entry by telling my mother, once again, that I am fine. Yes, Manila was flattened by major floods. Yes, typhoons followed the floods. Yes, many people suffered. Yes, the U.S. Embassy was flooded. But I am fine. And very lucky. Many others were not so fortunate.”

I don’t think we can realistically expect our ambassadors to write about foreign policy issues in their blogs. We certainly can’t expect Ambassador Kenney to write about the RP-US Visiting Agreement in this medium because there are other venues what would lend more effectively to the discussion of such matters. But as she has shown, a blog can be a great tool in public diplomacy; no, not as a public relations-lobbying tool but in personalizing our government’s top representative in a foreign country, and in showing empathetic engagement.

Whoever works online officially as part of the public diplomacy outreach must bear in mind what Edward R. Murrow, former director of the USIA, once said: “Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

Internet stats for the Republic of the Philippines below:

Population (est. 2009): 97,976,603

Internet Users (2000): 2,000,000

Internet Users (latest data): 24,000,000

Penetration: 21.1 %

User Growth (2000-2009): 932.5 %

User in Asia (%): 2.9 %

In addition to the ambassador’s blog and the mission website (that has so far evaded the fate of a canned website template), the US Embassy Manila is on Facebook and Twitter. It is also on Flickr although its extensive photo gallery has not been uploaded to it. Ambassador Kenney is on Twitter with over 700 followers (including basketball star, Chris Tiu). That’s how you know she had “dinner with embassy pals and manny pacquiao” or that she watched the Smart Gilas versus Ginebra game. As an aside, the game, that’s the basketball game — is important. In 1898-1900s, the United States introduced basketball in the Philippines. Today, it is the most popular sport in the country.

Similar to Indonesia, I think there is an opportunity for innovative PD engagement in the Philippines that no one has grabbed unto yet. Filipino mobile phone users currently number more than 70 million out of the total population of 97 million. Its penetration rate hit 75 percent in 2008; double that of Indonesia’s. More than radios, more than the Internet, mobile phones have more reach than anything else in this country of over 7,100 islands. The Philippines is also widely called the text-messaging center of the world for a reason; they send one billion text messages a day. According to WaPo, when President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in 2001, he bitterly complained that the popular uprising against him was a “coup de text.” (It was widely reported that the protest was coordinated with SMS chain letters).

“This is a development for democracy,” was how text messaging was described by one protest leader, five years later, organizing against Estrada’s successor. If a “coup de text” was possible, how can making this work for public diplomacy be impossible? “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future.*”

There is a way to put this to great use – find it!

See more Web 2.0 Roundup here.

*James Bertrand quote