Auto-respond email gets some bad press, and by the way, US Embassy Tunis is now on Authorized Departure

It used to be that if an American citizen is upset about the attention or service it receives from an American Embassy, he/she would have to write or fax a letter of complaint to the US ambassador, congressional reps or his/her newspaper. In the 21st century, he/she can still do that but can also blog about it, tweet about it or quickly pass any complaints to an almost infinite number of media outlets.

It also used to be that when you leave work, you get down time at home.  Now with the ever present gizmos, you don’t really leave work since you are hook up in one way or another to the work place. Life now happens in real time even online. But its hard to ditch an old habit from the 20th century. So you are still reminded to turn on your auto-respond email when you are out of the office for an extended amount of time.  In three day-holidays, you turn it on to inform/remind whoever needs to reach you that you are not at work, at work, even if you are considered to be on duty 24/7. At times, you provide not just the emergency telephone number of the embassy’s duty officer but also the name of the person in charged of the office if you are on extended absence,  But how you write your auto-respond email, can still get you some bad press. Like this one from US Embassy Tunis: 
Via Gawker:

U.S. Embassy Isn’t Letting a Coup Get In the Way of a Vacation Day

In case you haven’t noticed, Tunisia’s fallen apart. Its president just fled the country after weeks of riots, and the military has taken control. The U.S. Embassy will still be closed on Martin Luther King Day, though. Holidays are holidays!

A tipster in Tunisia—go here for a good explainer on what’s happened there—sent an e-mail just a few hours ago to Stephen Ashby, the U.S. consular officer there and third-ranking embassy staffer.

He got an auto-respond e-mail, sent at noon eastern time, saying that Ashby was out of the office and that the embassy will be closed on January 17, 2010 to honor Martin Luther King Day.

Read the whole thing here.

The consular section at the US Embassy in Tunis according to a three year old OIG report was rightsized not too long ago. At the time of the inspection in 2007, the OIG expected that the position of the deputy section chief would be eliminated the following summer. If all that went according to plans, the consular section would have one midlevel FS-02 officer as section chief, two entry level officers on their first assignment overseas and five local staff at this time.

We don’t know the Tunis consular chief and we can’t tell if he went on vacation this MLK’s holiday weekend. His auto responder email is, however correct in indicating that Monday, January 17 is a holiday and the embassy will be closed.  That’s dictated by Uncle Sam, people.  That the embassy is closed to the public does not mean, the staff is not at work. Of course, the general public would not know that.  Presumably, given the developments in the country last week, the embassy would have activated its Emergency Action Committee (EAC). Since the consular section chief is the only midlevel officer in a section of three officers (two on first tours), covering a consular district with some 600 American citizens, we expect that this past weekend was not a vacation for him or anyone posted at our embassy in Tunis.

The public (perhaps even the warden folks) may not always understand what’s happening behind the walls particularly in times of crises. If we had no regular contact with our US embassy representatives and we got the following email from our consular officer, we probably would be as anxious as Gawker. Like — whaaat, things are falling apart and you are on a holiday?!!!

Image from Gawker

So how about if your auto respond email says:

I will be out-of-office from Saturday, January 15 until Tuesday, January 18, 2011.  Although the US Embassy will be closed for the XXXX holiday on Monday, we are closely monitoring the situation in XXXX. Please read the recent Travel Advisory//Alert/Warning here dated XXX and take appropriate precautions. For updated information on security situation/guidance, check this website XXXX.  In case of an emergency, please contact the embassy’s Duty Officer at xxxxxx.

At the minimum, that’s what we hope we’d get from our embassy if we were stranded in a country amidst a revolution.  The canned auto-response above although accurate comes across as if the US official is detached from the reality on the ground.    

Now would be a good time to review your auto response email. Take appropriate care with the text especially when there are fast moving local events that can turn critical.  Prepare alternate text for when there is an emergency so you have a draft ready to go when you need it.  Be mindful that your email, whether on auto response or not, always reflects on your employer.

US Embassy Tunisia is also on Facebook, but it’s effort there viewed from a private American citizen’s perspective is not any better. It posted the Travel Warning dated January 16, but fails to engage with many questions posted online. On a question on services, obviously referring to services in relation to the alert that was just issued, FB Tunis points fans to a link in the embassy’s website, telling them to look up “the “U.S. Citizen Services” page for information about services,” which has really no additional details on the events unfolding in the country or what the embassy might do to assist.  Its booklet on General Guidance for American Citizens Living in Tunisia is of course, useful, absent a coup or a revolution. Nothing in the embassy’s website talks about emergencies except a list of emergency telephone numbers; nothing on possible evacuations, or crisis preparedness.     

It wasn’t totally surprising that when US Embassy Tunis posted its Warden Message on the authorized departure of the embassy’s family members from Tunisia, you see the following comment:

This is what is so absurd!

1.) They send this warden message out late last night – I didn’t receive it until I woke up this morning. The flight is for tomorrow morning at 9am. That gives little time for people to decide if they want to go,… to prepare their things, AND for those outside of Tunis to make the trip.

2.) We have to repay the ticket to Rabat without knowing the price! It could be double what it normally is due to the fact most airlines are restricting flights to/from Tunisia at the moment.

3.) They don’t take us to US soil – they dump us in another foreign country and won’t offer to help with any accommodation, or travel plans, etc once we are there.

I really do not see how this is a valid alternative to staying here in Tunisia. Or maybe that’s the point – they want to say they OFFERED transportation out of the country, but they are counting on most people not taking them up on it.

And there was nobody from the Embassy Tunis FB team to explain or clarify any confusion on the part of the reading public.  Most Americans generally assume that the US Government will send in the Marines to rescue them when they are in trouble overseas. That assumption seems to be true whether the host country is in political turmoil, in a natural disaster or when an  American traveler is in jail.

22 U.S.C. 2671(a) does provide that the Secretary of State is authorized to make expenditures […] for unforeseen emergencies arising in the diplomatic and consular service. 22 U.S.C. 2671(b)(2)(A) provides that such activities include “the evacuation when their lives are endangered by war, civil unrest, or natural disaster of:

  • (1) “United States Government employees and their dependents; and
  • (2) “Private United States citizens or third-country nationals, on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable, with such reimbursements to be credited to the applicable Department of State appropriation and to remain available until expended except that no reimbursement under this clause shall be paid that is greater than the amount the person evacuated would have been charged for a reasonable commercial air fare immediately prior to the events giving rise to the evacuation.”

Evacuation is not free:  U.S. citizen evacuated on United States Government funded transportation, whether embassy commercial charter or military transport, must execute the promissory note and loan agreement on Form DS-3072 prescribed by the Department to cover the cost of transportation for all family members, including alien family members.

Everyone fills out a promissory note: With few exceptions, even USG employees fills out DS-3072 to enable post to generate a manifest.

Evacuation loan: A U.S. citizen abroad is eligible to receive an evacuation loan if the Department of State is evacuating U.S. citizens from a country where their lives are endangered by war, civil unrest, or natural disaster.

Repatriation loan: If the crisis evacuation loan recipient arrives at a safe haven outside the United States, and then requires a repatriation loan in order to return to the United States from the safe haven, the safe haven post, unless otherwise authorized by the Department, should process a repatriation loan for eligible U.S. citizens, cancel the previous U.S. passport, and issue a limited validity passport limited for direct return to the United States. (See 7 FAM 370.)

Read more here.

The regs advise that post publicize Form DS-3072 requirement via town hall meetings and warden messages to all potential evacuees. Also to provide copies of the form which is also available electronically at the Department of State Internet Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) forms page under American Citizen
Services as far in advance of an evacuation as possible. Advise evacuees to bring filled-out forms with them to the evacuation site in order to shorten required processing.

Of course, there is never enough lead time for an evacuation. It can happen within 24-48 hours. By that time, post is busy with the logistics of evacuating non-essential personnel and family members, as well as private Americans.  Here’s a couple of thoughts:

  • Include a Frequently Asked Questions on crisis preparedness on the mission website dedicated to private Americans.  This could include information on crisis evacuations, loans and evacuation documents. Encourage American citizens and wardens to read and disseminate the information. Provide links to the relevant regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual highlighting information on what the embassy can and cannot do. By doing this, public expectations can be managed more effectively. (Note: This would make a very useful special project for an ELO out there).
  • Given that evacuations seem to be happening with more frequency these days, the functional or regional bureaus might consider putting together small emergency digital teams based in DC who is tasks with taking over post’s web and social media outlets for the duration of the crisis. The embassy employees will already be challenged with the impending evacuation and swamped with work demands. Having a back up, on call media team would help ensure that there is continuity with public engagement at the time when the public demands it the most.       

Why bother?  One can never be too prepared.  Political turmoil of every flavor continues to roil Africa and natural disasters can strike anywhere as the floods in Australia and Brazil. And who knows what’s next in Africa and the Middle East in light of what’s happening in Tunisia ….