Analysis: Blogging Better at the State Department

by Steven R. Corman and Kris Acheson

In what appears to be an ongoing effort to modernize its strategic communication and public diplomacy efforts, the U.S. State Department recently launched its official blog, called Dipnote. In the two weeks of operation the blog has made 26 posts. Here we take a look at the blog and the reaction to it, with an eye toward understanding what is working and what is not.

Though the about page lists three people as the official bloggers, the welcome-to-the-blog message comes from Sean McCormack (whose name in the MSM is invariably preceded with “State Department Spokesman”):

With Dipnote we are going to take you behind the scenes at the State Department and bring you closer to the personalities of the Department. We are going to try and break through some of the jargon and talk about how we operate around the world. …Let the conversation begin.

McCormack’s post notes that “we broke our own rule” by using State Department jargon for the blog title (it’s short for a “diplomatic note”).

In fact the name of the blog so far appears to be the most controversial thing about it, and not because of jargon. “I could only gasp ‘OMG!’ in response,” to hearing the name, says Liz from Sivacracy. “Don’t they realize that the word ‘dip’ often goes in front of other uncomplimentary words?” Indeed. Lest anyone be left straining for an example Quonsar at Metafilter provides it: “WRITTEN FOR, BY AND ABOUT DIPSHITS.” Scorn for the name appears to be nearly universal among external bloggers and commentators on the blog itself.

Dipnote posting frequency

Though the blog started off with a bang of content, it has tailed-off in the two weeks it has been alive. As the chart shows, what was at first a multiple-post-per-day operation has turned into intermittent single posts. This reflects a common pattern of “flash in the pan” blogs that begin with great enthusiasm but then disintegrate when bloggers learn what an effort it is to produce good content.

Consistent with McCormack’s promise, three quarters of the posts take us “behind the scenes” at State. These are evenly split between posts from the recent UN General Assembly and reports from officers attending meetings or on foreign assignment, which we’ll call tales from the field. Four are issues posts; two of these (bravely, if sheepishly) deal with the Blackwater scandal, one is on passport problems, and one is on the situation in Burma…or is that Myanmar? Two times they have posted a question of the week, with brief statements describing an issue and an invitation to provide comments.

Since we do not have access to the site’s server logs, the best available indication of the stickiness of posts (their impact on readers) is the number of comments left by visitors. The overall winner is McCormack’s howdy-message with 107 comments. Next we have the questions of the week, with one on nukes and another on Burma/Myanmar getting 82 and 32 comments, respectively. After that there is a large drop, with a post about Iraq getting 18 comments.

It is revealing to look at the average comment counts for the posts as we have clasified them:

Type Avg Comments
Question of the Week 57.00
Issues 8.25
Tales from the Field 5.89
UN General Assembly 2.20

Principles

For insight into what is “working” on Dipnote, we turn to the concept of dialog (also spelled dialogue in the academic literature). In the field of communication this concept is rooted in Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) discussions of literature as dialogic.

With regard to interactions between people, dialog has come to refer to particular kinds of conversations between people. In this type of communication, the dialogic nature of language is evident, because the conversations are not isolated. Their meanings depend upon the connectedness of the conversation with other conversations that have taken or are taking place, and what happens in a dialog in turn will be felt in those other conversations.

Some important features of dialog include engaging differences and practicing collaboration. When speakers engage difference, they respond to the arguments of other participants, speaking with rather than at (or past) each other. Practicing collaboration means that meanings are constructed by multiple participants in the conversation instead of coming from a single, authoritative source.

This second feature, collaboration, is why many argue that the internet offers new and exciting opportunities as a dialogic medium of communication. In the context of a blog like Dipnote, collaboration implies at the very least the idea of listening and demonstrating explicitly that what the other person says has been taken into account.

Analysis

It is clear from their comments that users of Dipnote want dialog. Most of the posts to McCormack’s welcome message are congratulatory, seeing the blog as a sign of new openness and transparency. Many users, like Eric in New Mexico, explicitly see the blog as a vehicle for dialog: “Now this is what I call Public Diplomacy….a public w/direct access to ‘the powers that be’.” Others used the welcome thread to broach topics they hoped to debate in the future.

It is also telling that the question of the week posts generate the most comments, and by a very wide margin. It is no easier to post comments on these posts than the others. The critical difference is that they contain an explicit invitation to participate, and as a result get seven times as many comments as the next highest category. This difference holds even when the post is on the same topic on the same day: On October 2 an issues post on Burma got six comments while a question of the week post on that subject got 32.

While its users hope for dialog, the blog isn’t doing much, beyond the question of the week posts, to create it. Three quarters of the posts, comprising the UN General Assembly and tales from the field categories, are one-way reportage that involve State personnel telling users what they are doing. Users respond to them accordingly, making few comments.

There are some cases of response by State personnel. In the welcome thread, McCormack posts a comment that thanks users for the comments and asks them to make more. Also in this thread, an unidentified State person responds directly to a user’s request for an RSS feed. Another possible sign of dialog, again in this same thread, is where Mihai in Romania asks “Who should be allowed to possess the nuclear weapon?” This became a question of the week on September 27 (although the post does not verify that Mihai’s comment was the impetus).

Beyond these examples, there are few signs that the blog is more than an exercise in one-way communication. We don’t know if the officials are using it as a listening opportunity or not, but if they are it doesn’t show. We therefore offer a number of simple steps the State Department could take to enhance the dialogic character of the blog:

  • Change the name. The critics are right; it’s a bad name that results in bad branding. Even McCormack described it as a violation of non-jargon principles, and making the change would in itself indicate that State is listening to what people are saying. Best of all it would involve little more than changing the masthead, as the blog’s URL doesn’t contain “dipnote.”
  • Improve the posting frequency. Blogs that are going concerns have at least daily posts, and the best ones have multiple posts per day. The decaying post frequency is a sign of waning interest in the project. One adjustment would be not requiring all posts to be long and extensive. The shortest posts are the question of the week ones, and they have had the most impact on users.
  • De-emphasize the behind the scenes posts. Users seem not to care what is happening at the UN General Assembly, and to care only a little more about tales from the field. Issues posts were somewhat more popular, and if there are to be some one-way posts, here the State Department has something to offer users – namely, resources and expertise that are unequaled in the best news organizations.
  • Summarize the question of the day comments. So far, nothing has come of the questions of the day, yet users seem to care about them – a lot. One way to demonstrate listening would be to have someone summarize the positions taken in the comments and post these for users to see.
  • Have officials participate in the dialog. Karen Hughes and Kristin Silverberg have made posts, but the effort would be less and the impact greater if their contributions were more dialogic. For example, they might make occasional appearances in the comments sections of the regular posts. There is also a golden opportunity in combining this suggestion with the previous one: A question of the day summary could be the basis for a post with follow-up commentary by Hughes or Silverberg or other officials.

We join others in complimenting the State Department on starting their blog. But as one commenter said it takes some time to get the hang of blogging. So far McCormack’s wish for a “conversation” has not materialized. To be successful the State Department needs to give users more of the dialog they want.

Further Reading

  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. (C. Emerson and M. Holquist, Trans.), Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Anderson, R., Baxter, L. A., & Cissna, K. N. (Eds.). (2004). Dialogue: Theorizing difference in communication studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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  1. [...] MountainRunner friend Steve Corman over at the Consortium for Strategic Communication (CSC) posted a deep analysis of DipNote that’s worth reading. [...]

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