Both public affairs (PA) and public diplomacy (PD) officers have the privilege of representing a greater principal actor in whatever position they hold. This was the case with President Obama, having Samantha Powers one of his PD officers, and Josh Earnest as one of his PA officer; it is also the case with President Putin in Russia, and it is the case today under President Trump. However, the communication channels have changed for each of these actors in the new administration with the prominent role social media now plays, particularly Twitter, when speaking or tweeting with foreign and domestic publics. The constant use of the platform by President Trump has allowed him to create a sense of personal connection with reporters, constituents, and even international leaders, alluding to real-time and unfiltered content, but also weakening the role of the PA and PD officers who have a pervasive role of communicating policy. By analyzing the tweets from the current administration’s officials, President Trump (@POTUS), US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley), and Press Secretary Sean Spicer (@PressSec), each will give inside unto how the three should represent themselves and their policies on a social media platform such as Twitter.
The “I” in Team
President Trump has a unique role apart from the others because of the fact that he initiates the policies the other two advocate. For this reason, it is incredibly important for anyone in the role of the principal actor, as he is, to speak directly for himself. Out of the 238 tweets sent out in the first 70 days of the administration, 47 of which seem to be written by the president himself (using I, my, or me). In comparison, Spicer never used a pronoun in reference to himself, but Nikki Haley did. Seven of her 74 tweets in the same time period were about topics related to herself, from moving to New York to meetings she held. These personal pronouns are important for public diplomacy officers because of their ability to provide independent perspectives on the role they represent – this simple communication tool allows an audience to perceive a unique voice. Had Spicer or a public affairs officer used these pronouns, his primary audience of reporters would no longer use him as a source who is close to the principal actor they truly want information on.
Distance from the Principal
25 percent of the active user population on Twitter are journalists, therefore allowing Spicer the opportunity to speak with his most direct audience quickly. His credibility as a PA officer, comes from two things: proximity to the president, and ability to control the message of the White House. This represents the 129 tweets out of 225 total related directly to the president. The second aspect however, as mentioned above, can sometimes be interrupted when the principal actor, or President Trump in this case, tweets his own messages without putting a message through the office of the Press Secretary. Not including the messages using personal pronouns, the @POTUS account wrote 144 more in third person or spoke about the administration more broadly. On the other hand, Haley is also able to distance herself. Although she does represent the government which the president leads, as a principal officer, or head or a mission, she can refer to him less, as can other PD officers reference principal actors less, as seen in her two tweets about the president.
In addition to the importance, or lack, of showing personal use of the account, it is equally relevant to discuss mentioning personal topics on particular accounts. PD officers have the greatest ability of the three to show personality through their tweets because it allows them to portray to their followers knowledge of culture in their host country. Haley tweeted 25 times about topics such as her new favorite song, a television show she just watched, or her dog, Bentley. As she is representative of her own perceptions of the US actions, she is not as subservient as Spicer does to the President. Spicer does not have any tweets about personal matters. President Trump has one tweet about the Super Bowl, even signed DJT which occurs in seven other tweets – three of which were about the US generally, two about his role, and two about the media. While the principal actor may show personality in his tweets, as in the case of the Super Bowl, the 47 tweets mentioned above that speak directly about the president are a better use of this tactic. This allows any communications officers to direct audiences to the tweets for official opinions about important topics.
While there are many other ways to analyze the tweets of leaders, from work related topics, family related, relaxed use of hashtags, etc., the last topic of importance to the PA, PD, and principal agent is communication with foreign leaders. As Twitter has a world-wide platform, it is impossible to contain messaging to just one part of the world. Therefore, a large part of tweets should be directed at foreign publics, but in different ways for each of the roles. From a PA standpoint, with the example of Spicer, it was appropriate for the small number of 19 tweets to discuss foreign affairs or meetings held with foreign leaders because his position is not to represent the foreign publics, but the principal. An even smaller number however, was that from President Trump. Only nine of his tweets related to issues of other countries. This may be due to the fact that he is yet to travel out of the country and is only taking meetings or calls in the US. Haley on the other hand had 33 percent of her tweets focused on foreign leaders and publics. This increase is due mostly to her face-to-face interaction with foreign diplomats every day. The real reason is the Haley’s mission is to represent the U.S. to foreign bodies, whereas Trump as part of his America first doctrine has focused mostly on domestic issues. However, this can also lead to problems when overlapping with personal content such as f the tweet from March 8, 2017, “On what will be an intense day on N. Korea and Syria, this was a sweet way to start the day…”Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. Happy Wed!” This could be seen as inappropriate when discussing such a serious topic.
Changes to make
From each of these four factors, there are many tips for future PA and PD officers as well as their principal actors. Social media can spark revolutions, but it can also be misconstrued. For example, on February 9, 2017, Spicer spoke at a daily briefing when he received a question about why the president tweeted one topic, but not another to which he responded, “you’re equating me addressing the nation here and a tweet?” As a spokesperson for the principal, PA officers must simultaneously contain a message, while maintaining credibility. Not only were the tweets of his principal actor discredited, so was the method, and the message at large.
On another note, to spread a message on a world-wide scale as Twitter can, it is important to connect with the audience you want to see the message. In many cases, this is foreign publics, whether these actors like it or not. Because seventy-nine percent of Twitter accounts are held by users outside of the United States, and over 68 percent of world leaders hold accounts, it is important for each to follow and be followed by foreign leaders. President Obama was criticized for following only three foreign leaders – Nikki Haley is following Prime Minister Netanyahu aside from President Trump, Spicer is only following the president, and President Trump is not following any foreign leaders.
At some point in your life, you have probably been asked, “If you could have one wish, what would it be?” Some people might answer the ability to relive one day; others desire to win the lottery; and some wish to have an unlimited amount of wishes. Then there are people who might have more modest wishes such as simply to be accepted and understood by others. This would certainly be the case among individuals who have invisible disabilities, such as one of the many types of mental health illnesses. One of the ways to help these individuals feel more accepted and understood is to raise awareness of invisible disabilities at the government level.
The State Department does a great job on their website promoting different initiatives for people with visible disabilities. However, they need to focus more on initiatives for people with invisible disabilities, such as mental health illnesses. One in five adults experience a mental health condition every year, affecting family, friends and communities. According to new estimates released by the World Health Organization, depression, an invisible mental health disability, is the largest cause of disability worldwide. The State Department website might consider creating more programs and social media campaigns to ensure more awareness and acceptance of mental health disabilities are seen in the US and thus, around the world.
The United States signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, becoming the first country in the world to adopt legislation condemning discrimination against people with disabilities. In 2008, the US expanded the depth of this act to reach around the globe, creating the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations. In 2014, an excellent blog was written identifying a gap in mental health diplomacy awareness. Nonetheless, the same gap remains three years later, and this gap is especially visible on the State Department website.
Currently, there are many different initiatives for programs including people with disabilities on the State Department website: #withoutlimits social media campaign, Paralympic sports games, and exchange programs in other countries helping vision impaired and paraplegic individuals. Each program has many accompanying videos or images, some of which are shown below.
It is easy to tell that these individuals above have a disability because they are visible. The woman in the first image is blind and is shown hugging her Seeing Eye dog. The second photo portrays a paraplegic man in a wheelchair playing basketball. Finally, the last photo shows a blind person, wearing sunglasses, and somebody in a wheelchair smiling at some type of conference.
What if the images were replaced by images such as the ones shown below?
These people do not have visible disabilities, but they do have invisible ones. Will Smith has ADHD, Demi Lovato has bipolar disorder, and the people in the middle have ADHD, dyslexia, and other invisible conditions. Highlighting celebrities and real people with these invisible disabilities in images could help raise awareness and create more tolerance by eliminating individuals from feeling ostracized by others.
Additionally, the State Department could cosponsor programs with NGOs for people with invisible disabilities abroad, such as the World Health Organization and International Medical Corps. The World Health Organization works directly with governments to improve the health of the people that they serve. Their Mental Health Action Plan for 2013 to 2020 outlines the need “to recognize the essential role of mental health in achieving health for all people,” placing an emphasis on the importance of prevention. The International Medical Corps is known for providing aid during humanitarian crises and has enacted mental health and psychological programs in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. A partnership with these organizations and the State Department can help to raise awareness and provide direct help to communities all over the world.
The State Department can also work directly with embassies to raise awareness across the globe in this area. Influential community leaders with invisible, mental health disabilities could sponsor arts or sports programs and the US State Department could incorporate press from these co-sponsored programs into their website. An example of this type of program would be to have singer Demi Lovato, one of the celebrities above, host a music event for people with and without invisible disabilities. In this instance, music would be used as a way to bridge people together and the State Department could document these connections through press on their website. Promoting cultural events can help change the stigma felt throughout a culture and allow people the opportunity to become more tolerant. The culture change needs to come from governments, whom people look to for guidance.
The State Department could incorporate more about invisible disabilities into their #withoutlimits campaign too. Individuals struggling with mental health disabilities can share their stories of perseverance, and have their videos featured alongside the stories of individuals struggling with visible disabilities. On World Mental Health Day, Tuesday, October 10, the State Department could launch a new social media campaign, starting with a webinar series. They could pull together people who have mental health disabilities from around the world and have them speak about how it impacts their lives and what they have done to overcome their disability. The State Department can also work with embassies to create a resource page for people in the US and abroad to highlight resources in their countries. It is beneficial to all countries to have people with disabilities as active members of society.
Finally, the State Department could do more to promote their Deployment Stress Management Program, which is located within the Bureau of Medical Services in Mental Health Services. This program provides information, education, and treatment for Foreign Service officers and their families while they are serving the State Department. Creating blog posts about the program or promoting it on social media could help increase the quantity of information on the Internet, thus helping to raise awareness and normalizing invisible disabilities within State Department employees and their families.
By showing that disabilities come in all shapes, sizes and visibilities, the lack of acceptance associated with mental health disabilities can be reduced. More awareness and understanding can be created throughout the world.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.
It’s no secret that the prominence and importance of social media has grown tremendously in the last decade. Facebook, Instagram and particularly Twitter have become key tools in political engagement of all sorts. Candidates, journalists and extremist groups alike have seen the outreach level of Twitter, and have used this engagement to build networks and create a narrative for themselves. Donald Trump has been revolutionary in his use of Twitter by engaging with his electorate directly. We haven’t seen a president use Twitter this much and by his own hand. Due to Twitter’s international presence, his tweets can have an enormous impact on the United States’ diplomacy initiatives worldwide. Therefore, we offer his team some guidance about how to potentially better their messaging abroad.
While many have criticized President Trump, few have presented real solutions. I believe that the issue isn’t with Trump’s use of Twitter, but how he uses it and the impact of his word choice and slant. In order to make Twitter a public diplomacy tool, President Trump might step back and consider editing his tweets with a foreign as well as domestic audience in mind. This would require input from officials closer to foreign audiences We offer some examples of potential edits to some of Donald Trump’s more challenging tweets.
Donald Trump in this tweet defends his executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. The media largely covered the executive order as a ban on Muslims. His tweet, whether purposefully or not, continued the media narrative instead of projecting President Trump’s intent, which is well defined in the order name. Due to its perpetuation of a ban and not an action taken in the name of national security, Donald Trump’s tweet fails to counteract the prevalent narrative. This tweet creates a mismatch in rhetoric regarding the intentions and logistics of the executive order.
This kind of language helps clarify the intention and helps elucidate and promote a narrative of protecting the nation from dangers abroad. It also directs away from the media narrative of discrimination on the part of the executive branch. This tweet also steered away from the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism”. This key erasure of Islamic from that term points to the root of the problem this order aims to solve, which is violent extremism, and the danger it poses to the United States.
Here, President Trump reacts to the 9th circuit court decision to not reinstate his executive order. The intent behind this tweet is decently sound, however the word choice and combative nature give it a harsh undertone. In his questioning of this decision, the tweet challenges the checks and balances system of our three-branch model of government. Donald Trump demonstrates a doubt in the structure of the US government, which could potentially compromise our confidence and high ground when fighting for true and functional democracies internationally.
First and foremost, this revision comes out and expresses Donald Trump’s respect for the court system that his original tweet calls into question. This way, he is not only showing respect for the system, he remains a part of it by expressing his intent to continue in the constitutional process. The edit expresses his commitment to the initiative, as it keeps the original language of the second part of the tweet.
In this tweet, Trump compares the meetings his staff had with Russian officials with formal meetings between two presidencies. He diminishes the strength of the presidency, as he questions the legitimacy of the enumerated power of the president to act on the part of the United States internationally. Without these powers, the public diplomacy initiatives worldwide are compromised, as the executive is the key to these processes. This poses a threat to his own presidency, as it reflects on the branch overall, and less on the Obama administration individually.
In the realm of public diplomacy, it is important to make the distinctions between diplomatic relations and potential international tampering. This Tweet isn’t the best reflection of President Trump’s dedication to preserving to dignity of the office of the presidency. We recommend against posting it at all, especially given the current ongoing investigation.
I hope President Trump can take these instances into account moving forward. It is a new reality with Twitter right at our fingertips, and adjusting is an important part of a presidency. Bringing in a communications team to fully develop these messages before they click send should become a consistent plan going forward. I hope President Trump can take into account the public diplomacy implications of these 140 characters.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.
In honor of the Centennial of Walter Roberts’ birth, the Institute for Public Affairs and Global Communication and the Walter Roberts Endowment organized a panel on Challenges in the New Public Diplomacy Environment.
Honoring Walter Roberts and Navigating the New Media Landscape: Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, Frank Sesno, introduced the program by recounting the contributions Walter Roberts has made to public diplomacy in general and George Washington University in particular. Mr. Sesno described how the new media age has transformed our lives, changed the way we obtain and share information, how we organize, mobilize and win. Each person now sustains a unique news feed and serves as his or her own executive producer, which upends old assumptions. The notion of objective journalism, of gate keepers, and even the notion of fact itself is being challenged as never before. Changes in public diplomacy reflect these changes in the real world, which the four panelists addressed.
U.S. Media Diplomacy and Foreign Opinion: Emphasizing that there is nothing more practical than a good theory, George Washington University Professor Robert Entman presented an updated model showing how information cascades from elite government circles through the media to the public and back again in feedback loops complicated by the growing power of social media. It is difficult enough to explain when and why Americans support U.S. policy as leaders try to spread their interpretations or frames through a hierarchy of networks, complicated by the ability of leaders to now bypass gatekeepers such as the media by addressing the public directly through social media. Persuading foreign publics to adopt pro-American frames becomes even more complicated as more communication paths form. Foreign leaders and the elites need to be motivated and have the power to spread pro-American frames to their public and gatekeepers. The public needs to be receptive to these frames as well for public opinion to be moved. The challenge is particularly acute in countries and publics hostile to the U.S. but even in close allies the multiple paths and networks for information to flow complicate the mediated public diplomacy efforts of the modern diplomat.
Connecting People to Policy – Leveraging Digital Tools/Social Media to Advance U.S. Foreign Policy: Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the United States Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs described three challenges facing public diplomacy at the Department of State: 1. thinking of policy in terms of objectives. Setting well defined, achievable objectives allows one to have an effective strategy and to measure success. This involves moving from telling people what they need to know to what they need to do. 2. Identifying priority audiences to achieve these objectives, which will affect even something as minor as putting together the traditional guest list. 3. Maintaining relations. One must maintain relationships and develop trust. The thousands of alumni of our international visitor and educational exchange programs should be viewed as allies and not just alumni. Nurturing and maintaining relationships will inoculate contacts, making them more resistant to disinformation. This will allow the USG to be less reactive and more proactive – a much better strategy.
Reaching global audiences – A changing saga of platforms, paradigms, censorship and ever narrower echo chambers: André Mendes, Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors André Mendes outlined three challenges. The first is budgetary, reaching out to the world while following Congressional and other mandates requiring continued investment in certain areas and technologies. The second is overcoming censorship with some of the most sophisticated censorship in the area of online software. BBG has the world’s largest anti-censorship operation with one trillion hits while continuing to overcome short wave and satellite censorship from countries such as Ethiopia and censorship of all kinds from countries ranging from Mali to Russia. The third challenge is the echo chamber effect, the fact that people naturally gravitate towards information they already believe in. The problem though is that every search we perform creates a micro environment as ads, articles, and preferences are directed to what we already like. The objective of online platforms is to make money by gathering clicks rather than to inform. Individuals from all corners of the world know that they can make money by generating clicks on our preferred platforms by writing articles that will outrage us even if not true. We are all willing accomplices by participating. Finally, Mr. Mendes described the progress the BBG had made in the last seven years, from 165 million monthly followers, mostly in radio to 270 million today, half TV and half radio and digital platforms. Given that this expansion has occurred under budget cuts of 150 million in an environment in which media in general is shrinking this is one of the world’s great success stories.
Public Diplomacy in a “Post-Truth” World: Andrea De Arment, incoming Information Officer and Spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu Andrea De Arment emphasized that diplomats need to make the tough transition from a reliance on facts and figures to the realization that most people paying more attention to what people care about: feelings, personal beliefs, culture and religion. To be truly effective, PD professionals need to be at the table when policy is being made to make the decision makers aware how a given policy will be perceived in various regions of the world. One cannot be served a plate made in the policy making sausage factory with the mandate to make people think it is delicious. Successful public diplomacy must engage so that diplomats don’t just push out information but listen to what is coming back. Digital diplomacy also needs to entertain in a strategic manner. Soft diplomacy grows audiences but one needs to go where the audience is to engage. This requires leaving the safety of the walled compound to engage with the public to close the last three feet to use E Murrow’s phrase.
Discussion Session: The discussion session revolved around issues of building trust both within institutions and with the public at large. Our partners can carry our message sometimes even more effectively than we can, which is particularly important when working with hostile publics. Diplomats need to use social media not only to transmit messages but to listen and to engage in the necessary give and take which builds relationships. The best way to inoculate oneself from Fake News is build relationships of trust and to be credible sources. To keep up with rapid developments, the State Department needs to move from a default clear to a default open culture, which will improve efficiency and motivate employees. To be effective, one must have well defined goals of what success looks like, which also allows one to identify failure more easily. One needs to change in order to survive but innovations should not be made for innovation sake but to more effectively support U.S. policy goals.
U.S. public diplomacy campaigns can be even further enriched by integrating advertising audience targeting and engagement tactics into the existing diplomatic digital and social media strategy and execution. Tapping into these tactics will build on the strong foundation that is already set in the social media landscape by the U.S. Department of State in their current digital diplomacy strategy.
Certain online audience targeting tactics come to mind when reviewing current Embassy social media content. Digital diplomacy messages shared by the numerous U.S. Embassy accounts can be boosted with compelling visuals. Several posts contain visuals automatically selected by the Facebook algorithm from the website the U.S. Embassy is sharing in the post. These click through links all direct the audience to a Department of State website, and thus the visuals belong to the Department as well. The U.S. Embassy should consider uploading the visuals as part of the post directly, as the Facebook algorithm frequently does not select the best visual from the click through link for the purpose of the post. Selecting the visual and uploading it directly will give the U.S. Embassy the greatest amount of control with respect to what information the team is emphasizing to the audience. Posts with such visuals, whether photos, infographics or graphs, are proven to perform at higher engagement rates, no matter the industry, and the Embassies should share content with such compelling visuals in order to work on securing higher levels of engagement.
Next, a call to action (i.e. Learn More, Discover the United States, See Additional Photos, etc.) will naturally entice the audience to click through to the links provided and engage further with the content from the U.S. Government. The links should direct the audiences to more detailed information of the official position on the topics at hand. This is an opportunity to expand upon the content shared in a limited 140-character tweet or short Facebook post, and every effort must be made to motivate the audience to click on the link to continue the engagement past the initial post.
Finally, using varied language, or copy, with wording closely aligned to the Embassy’s goals and target audiences will speak volumes. While I am not in a position to know the exact target audiences of the Embassies, I take issue with the catchall approach the social content currently seems to employ. A foreign population is a challenging audience, and it would serve my presumed goal for the Embassy of increased engagement with social media content to segment and more specifically target the desired audiences. Several desired audiences that the Embassies might want to target in their communications include the educators, students, law makers/politicians, elites or societal influencers, and the general population of the country where the Embassy is hosted. Engagement happens when a member of the target audience is inspired by the message to respond. Doors open when strategies and tactics are used to speak directly to that target audience as opposed to an entire population.
Our U.S. Embassies around the world shared relevant and detailed information leading up to the historic U.S. Election in 2016 across their social media channels. Take the U.S. Embassy in South Africa as an example – several Facebook posts were publicly shared to explain more about the Electoral College, election vernacular, and voter fraud potential. These topics are all of interest to South Africans, particularly with the recent South African Municipal Election still fresh in their minds. Yet, this outsider believes the messages could be even further refined and targeted to different but equally important audiences for the U.S. Embassy, such as the lawmakers or the educators in country. Reworking the content in these posts is a relatively straightforward process, and one that can be easily incorporated into the ever-expanding analytics and graphics group at the Department of State.
The Embassy’s post about the Electoral College aims to share important information about the essential process by which the U.S. President is chosen. Unfortunately, the Facebook post has little energy and direction for the audience to grasp, particularly with the use of quote marks, which invite speculation into the interpretation of the statement.
The leading question used in this post can be built upon by using more specific and varied language to align the post with the intention of reaching a certain target audience. Audiences need to be spoken to directly with appropriate vernacular and thought-provoking issues to entice engagement and understanding. The Embassy could rework the post to say, “Why does California have more Electoral College votes than Alaska? The Electoral College is at the heart of our democratic voting process, yet most Americans still need a refresher on the puts and takes of the system. Take a look at this post to gain deeper insight into the inner workings of American voting this election season: [link]” in order to accommodate this recommendation when looking to engage with a general population of local South Africans.
Secondly, this post’s image was selected by the Facebook algorithm from the link shared. It is a superb photo to use in the post – the iconic New York Rockefeller Center ice skating rink with the red Republican and blue Democrat map of the United States is a captivating visual for those interesting in learning more about the United States. However, this photo can be further emphasized by use of the direct image upload feature on Facebook to show the full visual and share an intentional emphasis of the photo.
A second post by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa focused on the use of election vernacular and how foreign audiences should interpret the meanings of those terms within the context of the U.S. General Election.
Again, the “coattails” visual contained in this post is dynamic and illustrative of the topic at hand, but the viewer is unable to enjoy the full effect as only two-thirds of the image is shown. By uploading the image directly into the post, the audience sees the entire image, including the full politicians with the election confetti and balloons, and knows that the visual directly corresponds to the post content.
Additionally, the topic of United States election vernacular could be an enjoyable educational experience, particularly for the audience of South African government workers and educators alike, yet the copy used in the second part of the post is devoid of excitement. The language is stiff in the opening sentence “You’ll hear American commentators use some strange words to talk about the ins and outs of the U.S. election,” as if it is being held back behind a wall that only cautious, appropriate copy is allowed to pass through. Injecting additional punctuation, adjectives and calls to action will jazz up the language and entice more readers to stop and read the post, and then perhaps even engage with the post to learn more. Careful selection of this language is of course required, but even a simple “Take a glance at this quick guide to the three most common phrases used by Americans around Election Day: [link]” would help to encourage additional engagement with the Embassy post, particularly with an elite or political audience short on time and needing a quick update on the latest U.S. Election slang.
Finally, the third post I’ve selected from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa’s Facebook page centered on the potential for voter fraud.
This post is perhaps the most in line with the recommendations I suggest for further enhancing the effectiveness of the posts. The language is more intriguing to the South African audience, given the direct connection to the current discussion revolving around fraud in South African government, and includes a direct call to action to read the article by clicking on the link to learn more.
All of these U.S. Embassy South Africa posts use click-throughs to the Share.America.gov, a website populated with State Department content which is “the U.S. Department of State’s platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” This platform is an excellent representation of a dynamic, mobile-optimized website where the audience can expand their knowledge about official policy positions and current actions taken by the U.S. Government on the topics of the posts.
These three tactical approaches to refining social media content directly correlate to the strategy of furthering engagement with local populations and improving retention of U.S. policy positions. Each tactic can be further supplemented with the use of paid promoted posts in the social media platforms. A relatively small amount of dollars can go a long way to specify the audiences targeted by each message execution (certainly when compared to the cost of an exchange program or speaking tour, for example). The greatest measurements that would clearly portray an improvement in Embassy posts are engagement rates, impression numbers, click through measurements and the like, all of which are only available to the individual account managers and not this outsider. I urge the Department of State to consider these ideas in order to implement upgrades that further enhance audience targeting, segmentation, and resulting engagement throughout their online diplomatic strategy, including both paid and non-paid options.
The views expressed within are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.
Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.
While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.
Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.
The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.
For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.
Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:
|Identity Narrative||System Narrative|
|ISIS Recruit||Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness||Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous|
“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.
So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.
One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.
Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally. No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.
The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.
Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) is an innovative program that removes a hierarchical government approach to digital youth outreach. It does so by providing the resources for university students to creatively implement localized solutions that reach the target demographic: their own age group using their own preferred online platforms. On the International Day of Peace, September 21, regional winners from the U.S., Finland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Netherlands, presented their creative digital outreach campaigns in New York City to encourage moderation and integration in communities plagued by online extremism, prejudice, and hate.
Keynote speakers from co-hosts Facebook, U.S. Department of State, and EdVenture Partners highlighted the rapid growth of the international P2P competition and ingenuity of the students. The program’s 250 universities across 60 countries have students work with $400 in Facebook Ad Credits and $2,000 budget for academic credit to research a target audience and then create a digital media initiative, tool, or product to counter online extremism. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, described the program as the “model for public-private partnerships at State. We love this program because we get out of the way.” Head of Product Policy at Facebook, Monika Bickert, said the local and global campaigns are so inspiring because the students are responding to their environment, and they can thus develop effective solutions. Under Secretary Stengel reinforced this critical need to act upon understanding by elaborating on his media experience, “as a journalist, when I asked the wrong question, I got the wrong answer.” The following are brief summaries of how each winning team answered the “right” answer with their innovative solutions, with further details on their campaign sites.
All teams presented their strategic off and online, peer-driven campaigns that detailed design, implementation, and results. New York University’s conflict studies Masters students focused on diversity and integration processes based on teammates’ experiences feeling vulnerable as outsiders. They described how their campaigns evolved from the #7TrainStop on immigrants in Queens, into the Voices of New York Resolve on countering hate in Brooklyn, which will now focus on radicalization in Bronx prisons. The team has collaborated with local and international organizations to mutually support countering extremism goals, such as garnering 43, 831 Facebook views and 384,340 Youtube views on BuzzFeed-released, “When Hate Speech Comes to Campus.” [#7TrainStop]
The Turku School of Economics [Finland] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] concentrated on refugee integration. The Finnish team created a mobile application that addressed the ~1,000% increase in asylum-seekers entering Finland from 2014 to 2015. They identified four major problems refugees face: Lack of information on the city and country; Lack of contact with locals; Lack of activities in the reception center; and negative attitudes among the local population. Interestingly, these challenges are similar to those new students may encounter when moving to Turku. The team designed multimedia events to increase locals’ awareness, interest, and opinion of newcomers. “United by Food” was a day-long pop-up for refugees to sell food from their home country. “About Turku” made city information accessible by transforming pre-existing records into a free mobile download in Arabic and English. The Dutch team tackled the heated European political climate in “#DareToBeGrey: An Alternative to the Black & White Fallacy.” They created a humorous online series to raise awareness that it is possible to have a moderate stance on refugee intake. The online efforts combined with their recent five-city Dutch tour have reached over eight million people. Both campaigns give agency to Europeans and refugees through multimedia. [Choose Your Future] [#DareToBeGrey]
The Pakistani and Afghan teams focused on dispelling misuses of politicized Islam. The Afghan team from Laal-u-Anar Foundation identified TV and Facebook as the most wide-reaching outlets to defend their religion in #IslamSaysNoToExtremism while sharing Quranic verses that reinforced peacemaking messages. The Lahore University of Management Sciences project, “Fate: From Apathy to Empathy,” highlighted comprehensive programs to re-incentivize Pakistanis who felt they were “just a number” in the destruction and deaths from violent extremism. They countered the apathy by organizing concerts, tours, video games, activism workshops, and education programs to empower and humanize citizens. Both teams cite youth activation through media campaigns to promote moderate Islam to various demographics, as well as calling attention to a narrowing window of opportunity for effective counter-extremism. [International Strategic Studies] [Fate]
Event host, Dean Obeidallah, concluded by reinforcing the magnitude of violent extremism in Asia, explaining that “over 90% of victims of ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslims, but the U.S. media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t know.” Mr. Obeidallah paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to encourage youth to recognize their potential and collaborate because “few of us alone can change and bend history, but together, collectively, we can write a narrative of our generation.” Indeed, a compelling, accessible narrative needs to be solidified to effectively counter various forms of extremism around the world, and the P2P program is leading the way.
Digital diplomacy is a complement to traditional diplomacy because it can reach specific audiences in a more timely, relevant, and flexible way. Jed Shein, co-founder of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, said that digital diplomacy is “about recognizing where people are spending time today, where they are the most active, and how they receive that information.”
In fact, the fundamentals of public diplomacy can be found at the basis of digital diplomacy. It’s equally important for the State Department to recognize a target audience, identify the appropriate medium of information and choose the correct information platform when presenting a public diplomacy initiative online as it is in person.
The true essence of digital diplomacy is flexibility. Digital diplomacy efforts can be enacted across different online platforms including official blogs, social media pages, and websites, with relative ease. However, the savants are those who show a demonstrated ability to differentiate between content type and online platform type. Many have not strengthened their online presence as much as they would like because they follow the common misconception that all digital platforms are created equal. While there is a place for official policy documents on official websites, social media pages are not the right place. Foreign ministries should post content that engages the local audiences and creates dialogue through videos, images, and text on social media networks.
It is encouraging to see the international diplomatic community embracing digital diplomacy. On January 30, the United Nations organized the inaugural Social Media Day at its headquarters in New York City. The event was a collaborative effort between the United Nations, Digital Diplomacy Coalition and a number of international countries. This one-day event involved panel discussions, briefings from social media experts, as well a hashtag campaign using #socialUN.
The event also allowed anyone online to livestream the event on YouTube. This effort on the UN’s part showed the flexibility and relevance of digital diplomacy. For instance, the #socialUN campaign connected diplomats at the same event while the online video stream attracted foreign publics that were unable to attend the event in person. Furthermore, UN Social Media Day showed that digital diplomacy can strengthen multilateral efforts between nations and collaborate alongside new civil society partners.
The Digital Diplomacy Coalition is a new partner from civil society that is taking entirely new approaches to building connections within the diplomatic community using technology. While they don’t conduct diplomacy on behalf of a particular nation, the Digital Diplomacy Coalition is an “international, independent, volunteer-based organization,” that fosters a collaborative environment for members of the diplomatic, international and technology communities “to leverage digital technologies for diplomacy.”
Originally founded by Scott Nolan Smith, Roos Kouwenhoven, Jed Shein and Floris Winters in 2012, the organization has collaborated alongside the likes of tech titans such as Google, Fosterly, Tumblr, universities such as Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University and Georgetown University as well as the foreign ministries of Canada, Jordan, Peru, Kosovo, and Italy among many other nations. By bringing influential people from tech, government and international spheres, The Digital Diplomacy coalition is creating an environment that is realizing the potential of digital diplomacy challenges and best practices.
The U.S. government is also looking for innovative ways to drive digital diplomacy efforts. In 2013, the State Department announced the launch of the Collaboratory, an effort to use technology to drive public diplomacy efforts. Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, explained that the program would serve as a “platform to collaborate, incubate and pilot new ideas that amplify people to people exchanges and connect people using technologies.” The Collaboratory will provide additional opportunities for public-private partnership as well as new programming ideas that are both timely and relevant for local audiences.
However, innovation in the digital diplomacy space cannot simply result in the recycling of old content. Innovation must be driven by entirely new forms of content that engage local populations in a personal manner. The efforts of New York artist Amir Bakshi is the type of innovation needed in digital diplomacy. In late 2014, Bakshi launched “Portals”, a contemporary art project that brings people together from opposite corners of the world through videoconference and a recycled shipping container. The first Portal connected New Yorkers with Iranian citizens who could see the life-size projection of their counterpart as they discussed issues related to daily life.
Bakshi’s New York exhibit also captured the attention of journalist, Fareed Zakaria and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock who signed up to participate in the cultural exchange. The Collaboratory could use a similar citizen-driven approach to create a digital diplomacy initiative that provides Americans and foreign citizens with the opportunities to become 21st century pen-pals. This type of initiative could also be more sustainable because local and foreign citizens have a hand in the diplomacy making process by driving the content themselves.
As the international arena moves further into the 21st century, which countries will adopt digital diplomacy as part of the status quo? What challenges will they face? Comment below.
With only a day until the 2014 FIFA World Cup, international press appear to have a singular focus on all that is going wrong in Brazil and its state of preparation (or lack there of). They are not entirely without merit – eight people have died in the construction and restoration of stadiums, of which delays have been widely reported; protests around the country are unrelenting and increasingly violent, to say nothing of the security in the favelas surrounding São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that police forces still struggle to control.
Given this, what has Brazil done from a public diplomacy standpoint to counter the perception that it is not quite ready to host the Cup? Not much, it seems. To the extent that virtually every major global news outlet – CNN, the BBC, even their own O Globo newspaper – focuses on the singular narrative of unpreparedness, Brazilians appear to be in accord with that narrative: not only are they unprepared, but they firmly believe that hosting the cup will actually hurt Brazil’s image abroad, according to a recent Pew survey. On Twitter, users are using the hashtag ‘#imaginanacopa’, or ‘imagine the cup’, in tweets to allude the pending “doom” Brazilians predict World Cup will have on their country.
Even President Dilma Rousseff, who is largely defensive to this reaction, is inadvertently focused on the looming chaos as evidenced by her call for increasing funds to security and police forces and admitting to foreign journalists just days before the opening ceremony that things are indeed being done at the last minute:
“Everywhere in the world these big engineering projects always go down to the wire,” she said from a dinner with foreign journalists – her first before the World Cup – at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. “Those who want to protest will be allowed to do so 100%,” adding that the vast majority of Brazilians will be supporting the Cup and protesters “will not be allowed to interfere or disrupt the tournament.” – BBC.com, June 4
She has also taken the step of not speaking at the opening ceremony on Thursday, but largely at the behest of FIFA, which has also received a fair amount of backlash from the Brazilian public. Though the move is probably wise, it is not likely to be enough for Brazil’s public diplomacy to advance as it faces mounting doubt and weariness from both within and outside the country. Perhaps this reflects Rousseff’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude that once the games begin, all will be forgotten. She may have a point: in the 2010 World Cup, reports leading up to the event shed a similar light on the state of security in South Africa. The only legacy it has now is the buzzing sound of vuvuzelas.
Overall, however, Brazil has done a poor job of using a valuable soft power tool like the World Cup to promote its public diplomacy. There are a few opportunities for redemption: 1. The month-long event passes without any major disasters or deaths resulting from the dubious transportation systems, or 2. If Brazil wins the Cup, which, despite being the heavy favorite, some analysts warn that it is not as much as it should be for a home team. Otherwise, Rousseff may have to spend the rest of the year answering the question “Was it worth it?” rather than focusing on economic and foreign policies during her re-election in October. One can only hope that if she does win, public diplomacy lessons learned from managing the World Cup can be applied to the execution of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Malaysian Flight 370—specifically how the Malaysian government has handled the crisis to date—shows the negative side of public diplomacy, and reminds us why crisis communications matters.
From the moment the airplane disappeared from radar in the early morning hours of March 8, , the government in Kuala Lumpur faced a challenging task of communicating with its own citizens and citizens overseas. With passengers from a dozen countries on board—most of them Chinese—the public diplomacy assignment required careful, consistent, and credible information sharing.
That never happened. The result was conflicting stories, shifting narratives, and an overall picture of confusion. Now it will be difficult for the Malaysians to re-establish credibility.
The first rule of public diplomacy is to establish trust with your audience. Leaving aside the rules and procedures around an airline disaster, where victims need special handling, the basic goal of public information campaign is for government officials to disseminate information even when there is little to come by. The Malaysians needed to take hold of the situation and manage the flow of news in a 24/7 world where a cable operation like CNN might, as turned out to be the case, broadcast around the clock news about the event—dispatching reporters and cameras around the globe.
The second rule of public diplomacy is, if you don’t have an answer to a question, be candid and say, “We don’t know.” No information is better than bad information.
Lastly, be mindful of the power of the Bully Pulpit—a phrase coined by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to reflect the influence of the White House messaging platform. Deploying the Prime Minister of Malaysia needed to be strategic. There was no reason to put Prime Minister Najib Razak in the position of informing families that their loved ones were gone forever absent any wreckage of the plane to prove it.
To compound the error, the Malaysian government used social media incorrectly. It sent a text message to the families that read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.” Without a debris field, the message seemed hollow.
Now, with the help of Australia, there is a chance to get Malaysia’s public diplomacy back on course. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott just met with the Malaysian Prime Minister and one hopes they will improve the information flow about the ongoing search and investigation.
In the end, the answer is training. We need to train government officials on how to communicate before, during and after a crisis, and how to use public diplomacy effectively. In a world of citizen journalism, news, and global information, the alternative is chaos.