Success and Growing Pains: Official Use of Social Media at State

Digital technology, incorporating the most
recent developments in social media and mobile
applications, is having a profound effect on diplomacy.

BY JESSE SMITH

Diplomacy is a practice as old as nation-states themselves, but the way in which it is performed has changed continuously with time. When the United States and the Soviet Union squared off in the latter half of the twentieth century, using a telephone hotline and imagining what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain, few envisioned that only a few decades later technology would make such a situation seem worlds away. It seemed similarly inconceivable that in 2013, social media and other digital technologies would give the Foreign Service and the public virtually limitless access to the lives of individuals and the actions of governments all over the world.

On an informal level, the “blogosphere” is very much a part of the modern Foreign Service, particularly for those who joined the Service during the past decade and also for those serving in remote places, as The Foreign Service Journal has documented in past issues (March 2008, November 2009 and June 2011). The American Foreign Service Association’s website features a comprehensive list of blogs by members of the Foreign Service community that are updated regularly (see p. 30). This list is consistently one of the five most popular pages on the AFSA site.

But digital technology—including the most recent developments in social media and mobile applications, in particular—is having a profound effect on diplomacy at the formal, official level, as well. The new media technologies have already significantly altered how foreign affairs agencies represent themselves and publicize the policies they implement—to other governments and publics, as well as to potential employees. Social media allows more people in more places than ever before to access such messages, and this has permanently reshaped how the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies organize themselves and staff their offices.

On an informal level, the “blogosphere” is very much a part of the modern Foreign Service.

While all six foreign affairs agencies represented by AFSA—and AFSA itself—maintain some form of social media presence, the State Department is by far the most active, with hundreds of profiles for nearly all of its various bureaus, embassies, consulates and missions. The U.S. Agency for International Development also maintains a central profile, as well as a separate careers page and pages for most of its international projects.

The four smaller foreign affairs agencies (Foreign Agricultural Service, Foreign Commercial Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the International Broadcasting Bureau) are harder to locate online, and draw audiences proportionate to their much smaller size. Agencies like IBB and FCS are often simply referenced by profiles associated with their parent agencies (the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Department of Commerce, respectively). Some, like APHIS, have also released relatively simple mobile applications.

In contrast, because it is so much larger and has actively sought to enhance public diplomacy by embracing digital technologies, the State Department’s new media network reaching out to foreign and domestic publics is wide. State maintains an array of social media profiles numbering in the hundreds, along with some cutting-edge mobile apps to meet the demand for ever-quicker responses to events.

These efforts bring attention to U.S. policy, to the department and to the Foreign Service, but their development and marketing require funds and personnel. Tight budgets can limit online activity. In addition, crafting workable guidelines for the use of social media has caused significant headaches for public diplomacy practitioners.

Social Media and Public Diplomacy

Before Facebook and Twitter made communicating with people around the world easy (and helped fuel historic events, as appears to have happened in the Arab world and elsewhere), diplomacy relied more exclusively on words and ideas exchanged in person between select individuals, wherever they were accessible. Today, thoughts can be exchanged between anyone with an Internet connection.

The State Department has leapt into engagement in public diplomacy, proliferating social media accounts and reorganizing the bureaus, such as International Information Programs, that manage them. There are more than 200 Facebook pages and 120 Twitter accounts for U.S. embassies and consulates alone. Dozens of U.S. missions now have profiles on Flickr and Tumblr, and a growing number are creating profiles on YouTube, Instagram and even Pinterest. As of November, there were 20 official blogs (DipNote being the first) run out of the State Department in Washington, D.C.

A comprehensive list of the department’s social media profiles can be found at www.state.gov/r/pa/ode/socialmedia. These foreign-focused pages based at posts around the world serve several purposes. Often relaying local news and policy, sometimes in the host-country language in addition to English, they enable foreign audiences to acquaint themselves with the United States and American officials who introduce themselves online. The social media profiles also enable locals to monitor U.S. policies as applied within their countries. While access to these pages, and thus the number of their fans or followers, vary from country to country, State has prided itself on giving local populations a window through which to appreciate the work of the U.S. Foreign Service.

As stations of assistance and resources for Americans living and working abroad, diplomatic posts also use social media to serve expatriates and Foreign Service employees in these countries. The usual content of their Facebook and Twitter pages ranges from daily updates on State policy and highlights of new programs and diplomatic visits—perhaps an address by #SecState @JohnKerry or #POTUS @BarackObama—to critical information disseminated during emergency situations.

On July 3, 2013, for instance, when the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed by Egyptian armed forces, Embassy Cairo regularly updated its Facebook and Twitter pages. Even after the embassy evacuation, day-to-day updates continued. Facebook and Twitter also provided an emergency number for American citizens who needed to speak with a duty officer, and kept their audience updated on all official announcements by the White House and the State Department regarding the coup and resulting incidents.

This points to another use of social media: for consular work. Through social media U.S. missions can reach out to the American community in most countries more quickly than ever before: the old phone trees could only spread the word one phone call at a time.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is already quite active on social media. Travel.gov, CA’s travel information service, has a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. The Smart Traveler app from CA was introduced in 2011, providing useful information by country including “Know before You Go,” fact sheets on U.S. relations with the country and information on contacting the local U.S. embassy or consulate. The app was recently taken offline for “redevelopment,” but will be relaunched in the coming months.

There are more than 200 Facebook pages and 120 Twitter accounts for U.S. embassies and consulates alone.

Now Hiring

Digital technology has its place in public diplomacy, but it also plays an important role in the Foreign Service agencies’ domestic outreach and recruitment operations. Recruitment, in particular, has been drastically transformed in recent years with expansion of the use of social media and mobile applications to reach a broad audience of potential candidates with information about the Foreign Service career and hiring process.

The State Department’s DOS Careers mobile application is the only federal government careers-focused app and one of a kind in promoting Foreign Service careers. In a review of the app, Nextgov says it “offers everything a prospective Foreign Service officer could want, from an overview of the department’s roles and responsibilities to sample questions from the service’s entrance exam.”

DOS Careers provides multimedia information about all of the State Foreign Service career tracks, including videos of current employees talking about their jobs. It offers case studies that familiarize users with the day-to-day challenges of Foreign Service work. The app is free (and quite large at 50 MB) and available for both Apple and Android devices. (For more on the launch of this app, see the Talking Points item in the April 2013 FSJ.)

DOS Careers is a project of the Bureau of Human Resources’ Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment. This office is also responsible for State’s careers pages on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which have greatly evolved since the office began its social media outreach in 2005.

HR/REE’s Rachel Friedland stresses that social media represents only one of several communications channels the division utilizes to reach target audiences who may be interested in employment with the State Department. Various age groups can be reached, especially younger ones, and messages can be customized for specific groups and organizations. The recruitment division is particularly committed to attracting a diverse set of potential candidates for employment.

Diplomats in Residence, who serve under the HR/REE umbrella in universities around the country and are focused on conducting recruitment outreach, host their own regional Facebook pages. The DIRs engage with both those considering a Foreign Service career and those already well along in the selection and hiring process. Through social media, the DIRs (who number less than 20) have been able to expand their reach significantly.

The State Department can be found on nearly every major social media platform. But for now, the Bureau of Human Resources relies solely on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for recruitment purposes. The outreach is targeted and done on a minimal budget ($3,000 for Fiscal Year 2013). Friedland tells the Journal that the office’s goal is to ensure that all those who recruit are fully engaged on these sites before moving on to other platforms. She adds, “We haven’t reached that goal, yet, but are making great progress.”

Buying “Likes”

Overall, the State Department has been a leader among federal agencies in use of social media. But a May 2013 report from State’s Office of the Inspector General brought some unwelcome publicity and criticism of the Bureau of International Information Programs. IIP is one of three bureaus reporting to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, along with the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

IIP is responsible for operating the “infrastructure for the State Department’s 450 embassy and consulate websites that attract more than 340,000 visitors each day in 59 languages,” according to the State Department website. IIP is the department’s “foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau. It provides and supports the places, content and infrastructure needed for sustained conversations with foreign audiences to build America’s reputation abroad.”

The OIG report strongly criticized IIP for excessive spending on social media, a lack of strategic priorities and poor management. According to the report, which caused a stir in the press last summer, IIP spent approximately $630,000 on advertising to harvest Facebook “likes” between 2011 and 2013.

Although the IIP Facebook campaign “succeeded” (the audiences of two of its Facebook pages increased from 100,000 to two million during that time), the spending raised questions about the broader aim of online public diplomacy. Do “likes” translate into true “engagement,” and what kind of engagement is actually useful? Do more “likes” pay off in terms of influence on public opinion, or do they represent the ability to succeed in a more shallow online popularity contest? Does State wish to draw attention from the primarily youth audience of social media, or should it instead be investing in mediums that reach a smaller number of older, more influential individuals?

These questions are relevant not only for IIP, but for all the Foreign Service offices and agencies establishing public identities online. They also cohere with the OIG’s first recommendation— to develop a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy linking resources to priorities. Quoting the report:

“The absence of a departmentwide public diplomacy strategy tying resources to priorities directly affects IIP’s work. Fundamental questions remain unresolved. What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values?

“How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should they be directed to a global audience? What kinds of materials should IIP translate and into which languages? Absent a departmentwide strategy, IIP decisions and priorities can be ad hoc, arbitrary and lack a frame of reference to evaluate the bureau’s effectiveness.”

While not all public diplomacy projects are oriented around the use of social media, the OIG report claims that these online projects contributed to inefficiencies in other areas. The OIG suggests that once State addresses the questions raised in its report, it will move one step closer to defining the mission of its digital diplomacy campaigns and thereby assisting IIP (and other) employees in developing concrete tasks and meaningful benchmarks of success.

Who’s in Charge Here?

The staff of IIP must balance traditional forms of public diplomacy with constantly developing and shifting digital trends, the OIG found. At the same time, they suffer from “reorganization fatigue” and what some have described as a toxic atmosphere, with a management that is often unprofessional and intolerant of dissenting opinion, according to the report.

IIP is sometimes viewed as the “redheaded stepchild of public diplomacy,” according to a source quoted by John Hudson in The Cable (foreignpolicy.com) on July 21. The bureau is overseen by the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a position that has been vacant 30 percent of the time since 1999 and has never been filled by a career diplomat.

State publicly places a great deal of importance on its public outreach programs, including steadfastly defending IIP’s social media projects following the release of the OIG report. So many wonder why the bureau has had only sporadic leadership, with the bureau coordinator often left without direction.

Jurisdictional issues also plague the bureau because its mandate has been so poorly defined. It faces competition in the field of public diplomacy from external agencies, like the Broadcasting Board of Governors, as well as the public affairs divisions of other foreign affairs agencies. Internally, there is overlap between IIP and two other bureaus: Public Affairs and Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is worth noting that IIP is the only one of the three PD bureaus that is not headed by an assistant secretary; it is run by a coordinator.

IIP is supposed to have jurisdiction over presenting and explaining U.S. policy to foreign audiences through social media, and it runs a project designed to help embassies and consulates find and post material to their social media profiles. Yet in practice it has been confined to supplying innocuous material that does little to explain State’s intentions abroad—“like videos of bald eagles in flight, National Donut Day in the U.S. or youth entrepreneurship,” according to one IIP employee quoted by John Hudson.

In place of focusing on adding depth to the Foreign Service’s social media domains, IIP utilizes resources for this and projects like its 20/100/100 program—helping 20 posts at a time increase their fan base by 100 percent in 100 days—which seems to contribute only superficially to public diplomacy.

Despite its questionable spending on advertisement, however, IIP is responsible for numerous social media outlets that have connected the Foreign Service with millions around the world. The value of digital public diplomacy cannot be quantified by Facebook “likes,” but is evident in the department’s enhanced foreign interaction and accessibility.

Moving in the Right Direction

Today’s online technologies have inundated the Foreign Service, and they are here to stay. While the OIG report was scathing in its assessment of State’s most tech-savvy bureau, it also offered practical recommendations for fixing problems and building on the real progress to date. It could help the bureau and the department shape the overall digital agenda.

A new coordinator, Macon Phillips, took over IIP in September 2013, but three of the seven top positions remained vacant as of December. Phillips comes to State from the White House, where he was director of digital strategy and a senior adviser to President Obama; and the other three senior officials in IIP are Foreign Service officers, two of them senior officers.

The State Department, along with every “social media functional bureau” within it, steadfastly views social media as the future of public diplomacy. After observing the advances the department has made in utilizing the technology—and after looking at the pace of digital trends outside of the Foreign Service, all over the world, it is hard to disagree.


Jesse Smith is a graduate student in national intelligence and security studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He was the Journal’s summer 2013 editorial intern.