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20

MAY 2017

|

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

comment; and when they do, they almost

never get an answer from an actual Ameri-

can diplomat.

In the digital age, that kind of silence

is fatal. It’s also an indictment of our PD

presence online, which misses the entire

point of social media: engagement.

Engagement is the conversation that

happens between followers onWeb

platforms; it’s more than a “like” or a

“share.” Engagement is access, influence,

conversation and communities of interest

that form around a particular issue. It’s

empowerment

.

Unless the State Department starts

engaging with foreign publics online,

how can we hope to be part of the global

conversation—much less influence what

non-Americans think and do?

Digital Diplomacy—Not All

That Quick or Easy

There are a number of structural

constraints holding back State’s public

diplomacy efforts in the digital arena. The

first of these is time. Skill, tools and techni-

cal know-how are additional constraints.

Back in my TV days, every minute

that went to air took two to three hours to

produce. In other words, a three-minute

news segment took, on average, six to

nine hours to make. Understaffing of

digital operations at State exacerbates this

problem. Posts with tight resources tend to

invest staff time in the traditional pro-

gramming that has defined the PD field

since the heyday of the U.S. Information

Agency, rather than in social media.

Many PD shops are small to begin

with, and sometimes have just one local

employee whose job is to “do social

media.”These employees may not have a

media background and are also likely to

be juggling other responsibilities, such as

managing the education portfolio. Even if

they are able to post a few times a day on

social media platforms, they’re severely

limited when it comes to creating original

content or engaging with followers.

Bigger posts may have more PD officers

and local staff who can divide up the work

by function. Some missions even have the

luxury of hiring media-savvy local staff

who are wholly devoted to creating media

content. This is a huge advantage, but it’s

also rare.

Either way, a prevailing myth holds that

social media is easy and quick to “do,” and

can just be piled on top of other PD activi-

ties. It can’t.

Engaging social media requires good

media content, and that requires skill, the

proper tools and technical know-how to

produce. It can’t just be lifted fromwhite

house.gov or

https://share.america.gov.

And in our sea of bureaucrats, up-to-date

skills in photography, graphics and video

production are in painfully short supply.

Buying Adobe Creative Suite for each post

can fill some of these gaps, but PD staff

members have to be trained in its use.

To create effective media content

one needs to know how to tell a good

story with words and pictures. Where is

the human interest story buried in the

Integrated Country Strategy? What makes

a good graphic in terms of style, image

composition and lighting? Mastering this

is hard, and it’s often less about training

than experience.

Creating good content also takes exper-

tise in media analytics—content creators

need to have a feedback loop to produce

data-driven products. Most social media

platforms come with some sort of analyt-

ics embedded, which offer unique tools

for listening.

Merely watching a Twitter feed gives

marketers and pollsters a quick snapshot

of public opinion on any given issue; but

analytics go beyond this, offering a wealth

of data on audience behavior. Skilled

media practitioners mine this information,

and use it strategically to craft targeted

messaging.

Painting the Mona Lisa

with Spaghetti

At the State Department, most of the

cutting-edge tools and expertise have been

consolidated in the Bureau of Interna-

tional Information Programs inWashing-

ton, D.C., and have yet to be deployed to

the field in earnest. Officers in the field

who do make the investment in these tools

find they are unable to make the most

of their potential for lack of the relevant

knowledge and skill sets.

Although there are a few digital and

social media classes at the Foreign Service

Institute, they are considered electives and

are offeredmainly in the summer inWash-

ington or at a few international locations.

Many PD officers do not have the time in

their schedule to take them. Moreover,

FSI is ill-equipped to offer a high level of

technical training in content creation.

There is also, despite the rhetoric, very

little practical emphasis at State on how to

monitor and evaluate the impact of com-

munications in the field. This leaves many

PD officers feeling stranded, unable to do

the job they wish they could.

One colleague with more than a

decade in the department struggled to

revamp his post’s online presence. Using

part of his limited budget to buy industry-

standard photo and video production

equipment and software, he then found he

didn’t have the resources to teach himself

and his team how to maximize their use.

“It’s embarrassing,” he says. “Right

now, it’s like being asked to paint the

Mona Lisa by throwing spaghetti at the

wall, hoping something sticks. But you

can’t, because you need paint, brushes,

tools, practice and skill. At State, there’s

really no way to get it.”