Notes on Social Media & Public Diplomacy

A more mature understanding of the social media

It is no surprise that our early forays into the media felt a bit like returning to high school.   Much of the social media was for and by teenagers and catered to their motivations and predilections.   We followed through that door, looking for that ever elusive youth market and we were about as successful as adults always are when they try to “hang around” with teenagers and young adults.

This is one of the impressions I got from participating in an open discussion about how we (State) use social media in Washington and at posts at the tail end of the FSI course on using the social media.  In addition to teaching techniques this course was also designed to assimilate experience from those who actually work with the social media on a regular basis in real world public diplomacy, making, as course organizer Bruce Kleiner characterizes it, a “why-to” as well as a “how-to” course. 

Bruce ran what amounted to an informal expert practitioner focus group and since Bruce and I had worked together to design this module, I got to be there to take part and take notes.
The good news is that everybody is now using a wide variety of social media methods and platforms in public diplomacy.  We no longer have to do the sales job.  And we are maturing.  You can see the changes month-by-month.  Not much more than a year ago, it was enough to be on the media. 

At first we looked to the social media for numbers.  In many ways adopting the teenage paradigm of popularity, we measured our own worth and that of our programs by how many people put their names on lists, called themselves our friends or said they approved of our comments. We learned how to build audiences and found that it was easy.   But we don’t have the audiences we want and we don’t really have the audiences that want what we provide.

Several people complained that they were pressured to create and populate Facebook or Twitter realms w/o specification about the kinds of audiences they were supposed to get.   The result was massive, unsegmented groups of fans or friends, with little commonalities of interests.  We indiscriminately push our messages to these groups and call it a success if we reach a million people. But  we are now exiting this stage of development.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on

It seemed fairly unanimous that audiences and content count.   The social media can get people’s attention, but we have to hold it once we got it.  This is harder.  I compared some of the social media to barking dogs.  The bark says “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.”  Our audiences are acknowledging our presence and now asking what is it we want to say?   If the content that follows is insufficient or not well targeted, we will be about as effective and maybe as annoying as a barking dog.

This transition will not be easy.  We have developed general social media audiences but we want to pass messages about specific topics.  It is unlikely that any particular people will be interested in all or even most of our topics and few people will sift through all of what we send to find the nuggets of gold. 

Segment the audience and sell to the segments

Skilled marketers know that marketing is not selling.  It requires understanding your customers, your products and your potential products and putting these things together.  It is easy to take marketing analogies too far, but this one fits public diplomacy well.

The first imperative is to segment our audiences.   This may mean trimming them to smaller and more interested proportions.   A community that allows everybody in quickly becomes a mob, where important ideas and messages are lost in a sea of inanity. This actually fairly describes much of the social media.  If we want to make this medium useful, we have to tend to our audience segments.

Of course addressing a market segment implies that you have some product particularly appropriate for that audience.   This means content and often very specific content.   An individual interested in climate change, for example, will not long remain satisfied with simple information aimed at a general audience.   This will apply to any subject we can think of and it will happen even if we are trying to talk to experts.  An informed layman will quickly move beyond the general information and demand more.   If they don’t find it with us, they will move elsewhere.   Information is easy to find on the web.

Social media exacerbates a classic sales temptation.  An aggressive salesman can sell products his organization cannot reasonably produce or deliver.   A good salesman ensures that customers get what they want and his organization can produce and deliver what he promises.   This is often the difference between short and long term success.  

Another temptation is to use the social media as a conduit to unload our products into the market.   I asked how many people would actually read the various speeches or watch the videos we send out.  The response was not overwhelming.   If we, who are more interested in such things than a most people, will not be interested in these things, why do we think others will want them?   We have an important role to play for sources or archiving.    Most people will not read through a whole speech by the Secretary of State or the President, but many people want to have it available as reference.   They essentially mine out the nuggets of information they want.   Filling this need is a web 1.0 function or even just an archiving task.   We might use social media to remind audiences that these things are available, but regularly sending out texts is probably a waste of time and may even morph into the barking dog mode of annoyance.

Culture matters

It was clear from the discussion that people at our posts have many similar problems and successes with social media.  It was equally clear that there are substantial differences in what is possible or desirable based on local cultures, environments and priorities.   There is no such thing as a global product and we need our people on the ground to tailor and modulate our messages.   BTW – it is also very important to have up-to-date information from people on the ground.  Conditions change rapidly and what worked last year may be a disastrous failure this year.   There is no substitute for local expertise.  Social media can leap borders, but it still has to appeal to local people when it arrives.

Answering criticism

Another audience question concerned responding to criticism.   Sometimes we just have to repeat the same answers over and over because there is nothing else to say. This may not be satisfying to us or others but it is the way it has to be.  We agreed that we should welcome legitimate criticism and answer it truthfully and forthrightly.   There is a danger, however, of getting too deeply involved.  We don’t know how many people are really involved in an online discussion and/or if it may reach a wider audience.   We also don’t know the level of commitment.    For example, there might be only a couple individuals criticizing us.  Maybe they have thousands of friends “involved” but these people don’t really care.  Remember the difference between involvement and commitment can be seen in a ham and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

We can never be as efficient or nimble as a private firm

We talked a little about the differences between what we (USG) can do versus what private firms, or even smaller governments can do.  Much private effort in the social media is to simply build awareness or name recognition.  Unlike most private firms, the USG has no need to build awareness of itself.  Everybody knows who we are.   We also must recognize that people may see even our innocent effort as menacing.   I told the story about my recent experience with  I checked out a few books on ancient Greek literature a few days ago. Now is sending me updates on books in ancient Greek.  Their machine has noticed and categorized me. I don’t find this offensive and it may help me find things I might want.   Now imagine that you are a citizen of a country where America is not universally liked.  You learn that we have the kind of information on you that has on me.  Are you happy about that?   What if you find out that the U.S. Government wants to “help” educate your kid?  We have to recognize that we are not a normal organization and that our embrace is not always welcome.   That means that we can almost never just copy what others are doing successfully and we will never be as efficient or nimble as private firms because we cannot let ourselves be so.

Somebody has to do it

There was mention of the problems of staffing.  Social media duties tend to get tacked onto the workload.  Since most posts are already working with reduced staffs and already “doing more with less,” this can be a strain.  There are no easy solutions to the staffing problem.   All of them involve priorities.  We agreed that posts need to identify who will be doing the new work and how much time it will take.  Then they have to ask and answer the question whether the new duties are important enough to displace old ones, and if so what.   Of course, social media will sometimes automatically displace older duties.   The need to copy, collate and distribute is vastly decreased because of the social media, for example.   As with most management decisions, it might be better to reengineer and/or eliminate whole sets of tasks rather than tinker around the edges.  

A flatter hierarchy might be very helpful, since a great deal of time is spent getting clearances and making fairly meaningless cosmetic changes to documents.   The old saying that you shouldn’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision goes for wasting time too. 

The medium is not the message

Finally, we have to recognize that the advent of social media may be less immediately revolutionary than we initially thought.   Most people still get their information through traditional media, especially television and radio.  When President Obama spoke in Cairo, for example, it was hailed as a social media success but almost everybody who saw the speech, saw it on television.   Even people who saw it later on Internet saw it essentially through the television lens, just delivered differently.  And following up on social media has not proven as successful as the original excitement would have implied.  You still have to have something to say and you still have to maintain relationships.   Social media will become increasingly important as components in the toolbox of public diplomacy, but it will never be a standalone technique.   Social media can support programs, but it never can be the program itself.  The medium is not the message.  

BTW – I gave the keynote to this course.  The PowerPoint is available below.