THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Worse, he adds, once officers finally
get the tools they need at post, they
inevitably move on to another post—
where they again find they have to start
over from scratch. “We are falling light
years behind our private-sector peers.”
Don’t Delete the Tweet!
A third factor that hamstrings PD prac-
titioners in the field is trust.
According to PDwatchers like Nicolas
Cull, many U.S. diplomats already know
what they need to do. They just aren’t
empowered to do it, thanks to a hierarchy
that is power-centric and risk-averse.
The emergence of digital media poses
a significant challenge to a bureaucracy
whose internal communications struc-
ture favors centralized power and vertical
hierarchies. Sometimes social media
“decorum” and diplomatic niceties are
out of step. If things go too far, someone
in management abruptly pulls the plug,
possibly with consequences for an officer’s
career and corridor reputation.
“It’s like there is this perpetual fear of
another Cairo tweet,” says Cull, referring
to the controversial Twitter feed from
Embassy Cairo that, according to some
pundits, “went rogue” during the Arab
Spring and strayed from the official U.S.
government stance toward Egyptian Presi-
The embassy took the account down
briefly in April 2013 to remove the offend-
ing tweet. That prompted widespread
speculation that State Department leaders
did not understand the negative implica-
tions of deleting tweets, and reinforced
a widespread impression that the U.S.
government was censoring itself.
(For non-Twitter folks: deleting a tweet
is really, really bad. Try not to do it.)
This kind of knee-jerk response was in
full view again last year following the State
Department’s instantly viral “Not a 10”
tweet on its@TravelGov Twitter account.
The tweet was part of a campaign to alert
U.S. travelers to scams overseas, but
caused significant backlash on Twitter for
being judgmental and sexist.
After attracting media coverage on
global news networks, the tweet was
yanked from the feed—which generated
another news cycle about whether State
was sanitizing its image.
On the upside, that tweet instantly
drew in thousands of new followers to
@TravelGov and, in this writer’s view,
should be looked at as at least a partial
success story in grabbing world attention
and increasing State’s Twitter following.
Social media is all about rapid-fire
interaction with the public, informally and
in real time—something not easily permit-
ted in State’s current corporate culture.
One mid-level PD colleague puts it
this way: “I would kill for just two hours a
week to talk to people online about issues
that matter. Like democracy, or trade. But
I don’t do it.” It’s not because the time
isn’t there, she says: “It’s because it’s not
clear to me what I can and cannot do.
There’s no mandate. There are no clear
rules of engagement.”
And therein lies the rub. There is fear
that the spontaneous, informal (some-
times even risqué) engagement that
makes social media pop could have long-
lasting professional repercussions.
Ideally, what is needed is a “train and
trust” model for PD, where the depart-
ment clearly articulates the parameters
for online engagement, trains its people
and trusts them to do the right thing.