THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Will State Ever Take the Plunge?
BY AME L I A SHAW
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
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
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-
“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
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