Quickie: Public Diplomacy 2.0: Where the USG Meets "New Media"

Helle C. Dale has a research article up in the Heritage Foundation website on public diplomacy (Public Diplomacy 2.0: Where the U.S. Government Meets “New Media” | December 8, 2009). The writer is a Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a Division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Quick excerpts below:

“U.S. embassies have seen the potential of social Web sites for facilitating public diplomacy. Embassies in Pakistan and Indonesia both have Facebook pages, offering information about the United States and American culture to an audience roughly 13 to 26 years of age. Degrees of success vary wildly, however. The U.S. embassy in Indonesia boasts 19,640 “fans” as of December 1. Its Web site bears an official U.S. government seal, and has a professional look that lives up to its diplomatic purpose. By contrast, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan has 539 Facebook “fans,” and is more difficult to identify as an official group — the site has no official seal, no State Department e-mail address, and a casual homemade look. This highlights the very pertinent question of official policy guidelines regulating U.S. government use of online social networking.”

As a side note — in October, Secretary Clinton, in response to a question during the Dean Acheson lecture said that “a new team going in to Pakistan” and that “We have adopted a new approach, which is we do not leave any misstatement or inaccuracy unanswered.”

The US Embassy Pakistan’s Facebook page was created in late October, four days before Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan. It has 627 fans and about a couple dozen photos online as of this writing. Odd thing though — there is no link from the official embassy website to its Facebook page; so you’ve got to know what you’re looking for. Since November 4, US Embassy Islamabad’s press office has also issued seven Corrections for the Record statements ranging from the US Embassy construction to “suspected Blackwater house.” But other than these, it’s hard to tell how much this rapid response team has done so far.

“New media” as “game changer?” More excerpts:

The challenges the U.S. government faces in harnessing social media are numerous. While it is essential that government have a coordinated message, the “grassroots” nature of social media makes it both difficult and somewhat undesirable to control them. The appeal of social media is precisely its feeling of intimacy and informality, and the government runs the risk of diminishing, even destroying, this appeal of social media through regulation. The content on social-networking sites should be both interesting and pertinent to individuals — people, not formal information, are the essence of social interaction.
The U. S. government, traditional media, and the public often view “new media” as a magic tool, portending a revolution in the way the U.S. government conducts public diplomacy and addresses the world. In time, it may indeed be the “game changer” that Undersecretary McHale talked about in her confirmation hearing, and new media does make it possible to connect with previously unreached and under-engaged populations. However, to realize this advantage, the strengths, limitations, and risks of each media tool must be properly understood, and technologies must be wisely used to their respective comparative advantage. This is why the framework of a National Communications Strategy is desperately needed in order for U.S. public diplomacy to rise above mere strategy and tactics.

In her confirmation testimony before Congress, Judith McHale spoke of the need for just such a strategy. While Twitter, for instance, is excellent at providing small, timely bits of essential information, it is fatiguing and ineffective for routine updates. The U.S. government, in the person of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, must provide agencies engaging in outbound communication with guidelines and metrics to establish that their use of new media is on message, recognizable as official, and wisely deployed in order to avoid destroying the intrinsic appeal of a given media to the target audience. Lastly, the government must realize that there are new media that are valuable tools, and others that are a distracting waste of time and taxpayer resources.

Congress and the Administration should:

  • Create a National Communications Strategy articulated by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.
  • Formulate government-wide guidelines to ensure that the new media is on message, as well as standards for official use of social media, ensuring that government Web pages can be identified and differentiated from impersonators without destroying the appeal of the particular media to its audience.
  • Establish a new non-governmental or semi-governmental research organization (a Corporation for Foreign Opinion Analysis)

The must-read article especially for practitioners of “new media” is here.