The Foreign Service Journal - May 2017
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MAY 2017



Digital Diplomacy:

Will State Ever Take the Plunge?


Amelia Shaw, the 2015 recipient of AFSA’s W. Averell Harriman Award for

Constructive Dissent, joined the State Department Foreign Service in 2014.

Prior to that, she was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, a

TV news producer with the United Nations, a digital media adviser for the

Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a specialist in social marketing for

international aid organizations. She was also a Fulbright Scholar in Haiti in 2003.

From 2014 to 2016 Ms. Shaw served as a consular officer in Tijuana, and is now in

training to serve as a public diplomacy officer in Vientiane, beginning this summer. The

views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the

Department of State or the U.S. government.


hen I came into the State

Department in 2014, I was

excited to add my skills to

our country’s public diplo-

macy (PD) effort. I brought with me 15

years of media experience, and imagined

entering a cutting-edge operation, where

highly skilled teams use technology and

innovation to promote our national for-

eign policy to publics abroad.

But that’s not what I found. Instead, it

feels more like being stuck in a time warp

from the late 1990s.

Here’s what I mean. I recently took

six weeks of training in preparation for

my first assignment as a PD officer, in

Vientiane. During our 180 hours of class

time, we talked about a lot of things—the

history of the U.S. Information Agency,

the legacy of Edward R. Murrow and the

meaning of PD. But we spent just three

hours on digital media—less than 2 per-

cent of total training time.

I was shocked. While our bureaucracy

has been busy plugging away at state-

craft, the rest of the world has under-

gone a digital revolution. Has State even


As of December 2016, there are about

3.4 billion people using the internet

worldwide—47 percent of the global

population—with just over half of them

using Facebook.

Due to the breakneck speed of mobile

phone penetration into the developing

world, the number of people online is

expected to continue to rise steadily.

Increasing numbers of users are younger

than 30 and live in developing or tran-

sitional economies in Asia, Africa and

Latin America.

Many of us Foreign Service types live

and work in those places. But are we

present there virtually? And are we mak-

ing the most of the huge (not to mention

relatively low-cost) opportunity that digi-

tal media offer our diplomatic missions

in our quest to win the hearts and minds

of the foreign public?

Many leading analysts would answer

with an emphatic no.

Jets Don’t Go on Highways

“The U.S. government is appalling

at giving diplomats the leeway to use

technology as it is intended,” says Nicholas

Cull, director of public diplomacy at the

Annenberg School for Communication

and Journalism (part of the University of

Southern California). Cull has advised the

State Department for years on PD issues

and lectures regularly at the Foreign Ser-

vice Institute.

“You can’t drive a jet on a highway.

Digital platforms were designed to create

relationships, not just push messages

out,” Cull adds. “The average U.S. embassy

Facebook page makes it look like the U.S.

government doesn’t understand the busi-

ness of public diplomacy.”

Cull is referring to the practice among

many U.S. missions of using Facebook

as a signboard on which to cut and paste

media content created in Washington

or post drab “LOPSA” (lots of people

standing around) photos. Either way, too

often content is placed without con-

sidering how it resonates locally. Your

average Nepali, for instance, might not

be interested in a post about the kinds of

vegetables planted in the White House

kitchen garden.

There are, of course, missions that

stand out for successfully using social

media to create local buzz. Embassy Mos-

cow’s 2015 tweet about the U.S. ambas-

sador landing on the moon is a great

example of dishy repartee with Russia’s


or fake news apparatus.

But these efforts tend to be the exception,

not the norm.

Compared to other Web and Facebook

pages, U.S. mission digital platforms

generally experience low traffic. Online

users who do follow the U.S. pages rarely