It’s me, the government! Accept my friend request, yo!

The goal of U.S. Public Diplomacy appears to be engagement, according to the Obama administration and State Department officials. Although, as illustrated in the Comor and Bean reading, engagement is not something that is new, the approach by the Obama administration is relatively new: listen, facilitate and participate in dialogue via social media. Comor and Bean, however, take on a decidedly derisive tone when assessing the capabilities of Washington to employ social media/public diplomacy 2.0 tactics. They call the approach misplaced and contradictory, and conjecture that “instead of facilitating understanding and trust, engagement more likely will compound the existing atmosphere of distrust between the American state and wary publics overseas.” (p. 204) The Obama administration’s approach to engagement assumes that PD’s efficacy is hinged upon both listening and dialogue. However, Comor and Bean state that “…the realities and complexities of communication undercut the concept’s ideas.” (p. 208)  Comor and Bean see stakeholders’ experiences influencing how dialogue will play out, but also how they receive, interpret, or understand messages that are being put forth by the American government.  To put it more simply, to many of the stakeholders, what the American government says and does are sometimes conflicted, ergo, its messages can come off disingenuous.

To help achieve its PD goals, the United States government should take a page from the Bruce Gregory reading. Gregory puts forth several planning steps, including knowing one’s audience so that messages can be tailored, but also knowing the culture of the audience so that engagement can be fully realized in the given cultural context. Gregory also says that assessment of operational efficiencies is a critical step, too, and I would agree. In the grand scheme of things, Gregory asserts that current PD practitioners focus too much on the possibilities of engagement that social media offers, but focus far less on its limitations. He says that practitioners also account for how cost-effective social media can be. But caution should be taken, and I would agree, that social media is a two-pronged beast. You can engage and facilitate a conversation with somebody, but that conversation has to be ongoing, and it cannot reinforce pre-existing negative stereotypes that the audience may have. Because of its very nature of being up-to-the-minute, responses cannot be orchestrated around a traditional government timeline, either (read: heinously slow). Social media is a great tool for engagement, as it can break down physical barriers to people, but the audience must have access to the medium.

To help the U.S. in its engagement efforts, rules for social media engagement should be established at a department- or agency-wide level. The State Department cannot take on the entire burden of controlling what the government says to the public, especially when practically every Federal department or agency already has a Facebook or Twitter account. I think that social media accounts should also be treated as a priority. In my experience, government agencies do not share best practices with one another, and this is evident in the way that different agencies manage their social media accounts. The importance of social media needs to be emphasized more. I think that government agencies assumes that Facebook will do most of the work for them, but they need to understand how important speed, clarity, and compassion are for engaging on social media.

 

-David

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One response to “It’s me, the government! Accept my friend request, yo!

  1. David,

    You’ve hit on one of the biggest challenges the United States faces in its public diplomacy efforts—consistency. Of course, as Comor and Bean state fairly succinctly, the frequent inconsistencies between what the U.S. public diplomacy establishment preaches and what the government actually practices threaten the credibility and effectiveness of both. You don’t have to look far for examples; in honor of Pride month, why don’t we take LGBT rights. For the first time, the State Department now considers the promotion of LGBT rights around the world a key component of its human rights efforts. Last December in Geneva, Secretary Clinton herself said that “Gay rights are human rights.” And yet, in 29 states, you can still get fired for being gay—and let’s not even get started on (the lack of) marriage equality in the U.S.

    The point? “Engagement” sounds great, but what is it worth if the people you’re trying to engage don’t trust you? What can it accomplish if they don’t think you mean what you say? Interestingly enough, as we’ve seen, this is an obstacle other, less self-righteous powers (read: China) face.

    I like your ideas on establishing rules for social media engagement at the department or agency level. It’s certainly true that the U.S. needs more consistency in its engagement with foreign publics. Do you think allowing each agency to set its own rules will really be effective, though? That seems to be the way things are done now, and it’s clearly not an optimal system. I have to wonder what rules from the top would look like, and what model a reorganization of the public diplomacy hierarchy would take. It would certainly help to have more interagency cooperation on this front. Perhaps we ought to look at the reorganization of our intelligence and national security apparatus after 9/11—after all, it faced many of the same problems (sharing of information, best practices, consistency of mission and priorities, etc.).

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