The Foreign Service Journal - May 2017
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MAY 2017


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-

dent MohammedMorsi.

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.