State Dept. Blogging One Year Later (Part 5): Going Forward

by Steven R. Corman & Ed Palazzolo

This is the last in a five part series on the one-year anniversary of the State Department’s Dipnote blog, and an analysis we posted in October 2007 on the blog’s first month of operation.  In this series:

  • Part 1 focused on reviewing Dipnote management and processes.
  • Part 2 looked at what the State Department bloggers were writing about.
  • Part 3 reported an in-depth content analysis of reader comments on the blog.
  • Part 4 assessed the State Department’s other innovations in social media.

In this final post we offer six recommendations for improving the blog going forward, and note some moves the Department has already made to enhance its other social media offerings.

Learn More About Users

As we noted in Part 1, Dipnote is in a unique (and unenviable) position of being prohibited by law from setting cookies to collect information about users of the blog.  This denies its editors important information like how many individuals view which posts, whether the audience is diverse or primarily a recurring group, whether particular kinds of posts increase its audience, and so on.  In short, they can’t get information that bloggers normally use to improve their offerings.  This information is available to some extent through analysis of comments, but few users post comments.

We’re not lawyers, so we don’t know the specific legal constraints on what the blog can do. However if the limitation is that the government cannot set cookies and collect individual data, perhaps an alternative is to use a third party for this purpose.  Analytic services like Google Analytics and SiteMeter provide html codes that bloggers embed in their pages.  The analysis server–not the blog’s server–sets the cookies and collects the user information.

Reports provided back to the clients, to our knowledge, do not contain information about individual users but only aggregated data (for example, about the number of unique users who viewed a particular post).  These services are commonly used on blogs and other web sites.  Visitors can even disallow the cookies from these analytic services if they don’t want to have their data collected.  Perhaps this offers a way for the State Department to learn more about Dipnote readers without actually collecting individuated data about them.

Increase Engagement and Timeliness of Posts

As we mentioned in part 1, Dipnote is considered an official outlet for U.S. policy statements, and this means that its posts undergo an approval process.  Sometimes this just involves approval by the managing editor, but in some cases stories have to go above her level for approval by policy personnel.  This can delay posts.  Since timeliness is one of the chief relative advantages of blog-based journalism, any delay in reporting directly impacts the value of Dipnote.

We don’t know whether this is related to approval or not, but the recent attacks in Mumbai suggest that Dipnote is not as engaged in current events as it might be.  The Mumbai incident lit up the public diplomacy and strategic communication blogosphere for a couple of weeks after the attacks.  Yet not a single post about the incident has appeared on the Dipnote blog.  This could not be because the event was a low priority for the State Department, since it resulted in a special trip to the region by Secretary Rice.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent use of the “house negro” epithet to describe President Elect Barack Obama also got a lot of play in the blogosphere.  We again don’t know whether this is related to approval, or whether it’s due to a policy of not responding to terrorist statements, but Dipnote was silent about this too.  Spencer Ackerman wondered why this was the case.  Matt Armstrong echoed his concern:

I have all the respect for the DipNote staff, and America.gov for that matter, but they just don’t have the agility or flexibility to respond to this message. …DipNote and America.gov should be one of the many platforms used to post accessible responses. Reposting [Ackerman's statement] is out of the question, but at a minimum a short response echoing or linking to Spencer is better than silence and would get traction.

Timely engagement is the coin of the realm in the blogging.  Dipnote staff should do what it can to speed approval of posts and to increase engagement with important current events that are getting coverage in kindred publications.  Perhaps one way of accomplishing this would be to…

Diversify Content with Guest Bloggers

Inviting guest writers to do posts for Dipnote would be one way to get more posts on a greater diversity of subjects, and possibly to break the strict association of Dipnote with official U.S. policy.  Other media outlets routinely present guest commentary and disclaim it as the sole opinion of the author.  Again we’re not lawyers, so we don’t know if the the same rules apply to the government.  But it seems that some suitable disclaimer could be designed to allow posts by guests on Dipnote with the stipulation that they do not reflect official U.S. policy.

In publishing guest blogs, it would be important to be open to posts dissenting from or criticizing of U.S. policy.  It is an open question whether the leadership at State would be comfortable with this (either in this or a future administration).  But to “cherry pick” guest posts would give the appearance of a propaganda or PR operation rather than an effort to promote open dialog.  Accordingly, we would recommend selecting contributions with the advice of an editorial board having a majority of members from outside the government.

Summarize and Feed-back Question of the Week Posts

In our initial look at Dipnote’s first month of operation in 2007 we noted that the Question of the Week posts generated the most user comments.  Our analysis in  part 3 of this series indicated that these posts still generate the most user response by far.  As we said a year ago, we believe that a big reason for the popularity of these posts is that asking a question is suggestive of dialog, or at least listening, and that Dipnote users believe they are being heard.

Accordingly we reiterate our suggestion of one year ago that Dipnote staff should summarize responses to these posts and post the summaries to the blog.  Doing so would have the benefit of showing participants that their suggestions have been heard, it would put individual answers in the context of the entire set of responses (in a way that can be difficult to judge by reading a large number of individual comments), and it would provide another chance for user dialog about the summary.  It would be even better, in our view, to feed these summaries to relevant State Department personnel and to invite them to post responses where appropriate and feasible.

Expanded Post Categories

As we concluded in part 2, the mostly geography-based tags used on Dipnote posts (either decided by the author or editor, it is not clear) do not provide much in the way of utility to the reader. As an alternative, the editors should consider changing their tagging system to be more topic-focused. Such a switch would make posts on specific subjects more easily accessible to readers. That is, for readers who do not follow Dipnote on a daily basis, they could use the categorization scheme to look up posts of interest to them on particular topics.

This is not to say that topics cannot include geographical regions, but rather the categorization scheme should be more broadly constructed. In our analysis, we identified 10 categories of which only one was a geographical region (Iraq). Furthermore, it may prove helpful to allow posts to be placed into more than one category. That is, a personal story written by an ambassador in Iraq could be categorized based on our identified themes as both Personal Stories and Iraq. Multiple categories would allow for easier searching by a wider array of readers.

Provide Threaded Comments

We believe it would be beneficial if Dipnote could provide a way to thread user comments.   Currently the comments section provides a chronological listing of remarks from readers.  This is fine for posts that receive a few comments, but it quickly becomes unwieldy, as in the case of the popular Question of the Week posts.

The availability of threaded commentary would promote greater organization of the discussion. Readers could create threads based on the components of the blog post they find exciting or engaging, and they could respond to threads created by others.  The discussion board on the State Department’s Facebook page operates this way, but it is disconnected from the posts on Dipnote and, therefore, prevents the continuity of discussion stemming from the individual blog posts.

Other New Media Efforts

As we noted in part 4 of this series, the State Department is aggressively developing new applications on a range of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  There have already been further improvements in some of these offerings.

For example, we recommended that the State Department increase its Twitter offerings, bringing them more closely in line with that service’s intended use of creating awareness of users’ current activities.  Apparently the media team had already been thinking along these lines because the following day they began tweeting live from Secretary Rice’s briefing.  Since then they have significantly ramped up the tweeting from diplomatic trips, press conferences, and so on.

Part 4 also reported on the Department’s experiments with “Briefing 2.0″ where ordinary people can submit questions via YouTube.  The questions are answered by Sean McCormack as if they had been asked in a “live” press briefing.  Currently they are discussing ways to bring remote bloggers (or at least their questions) into the normal press briefings conducted daily by McCormack.

One criticism we have heard about Briefing 2.0 is that it is not really interactive.  Unlike real press conferences, it is not possible for questioners to follow up or challenge McCormack’s answers.  Perhaps its incorporation into live conferences will address that issue.  Likewise it would be a good general goal make the State Department’s other social media offerings more two-way.

Conclusion

Sean McCormack, Heath Kern, Luke Forgerson and other members of the State Department’s Digital Media Team are to be congratulated on the progress they have made in the last year on Dipnote and the other social media efforts.  This work represents a frankly surprising level of innovation for the federal government, an institution that is not well known for pushing the envelope in its efforts to communicate with the public.  It also seems clear that the State Department is not just dabbling in these efforts, but making a sustained effort at continual improvement of the services.

Regarding Dipnote, we see evidence of an expansion in the number and range of posts and authors compared to the analysis we did one year ago.  We hope the Digital Media Team will give careful consideration to the changes suggested above to further improve the offerings, usability, timeliness, and engagement of the blog.

Regarding other social media, we are pleased to see the ongoing efforts to break new ground and improve services.  This is a great way to get more people (especially younger audiences) interested in State Department activities.  As with Dipnote, it would improve these offerings to make them more interactive, with responses and participation by State Department employees, even occasionally top officials.  In the end, social media users want not just information but also dialog.

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  1. [...] Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack, who has vigorously pushed the envelope on New Media efforts at Foggy Bottom.  Seriously, did anyone ever expect to see the State [...]

  2. [...] Department’s blog people want to feel like they’re being heard, and some of the same recommendations we made for Dipnote would serve the White House Blog [...]