Last week, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report of its inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). IIP is responsible for producing content and materials for public diplomacy programs conducted by the Department of State as part of its foreign outreach in over 140 countries. The OIG focuses its inspections on three basic areas in evaluating performance: policy implementation, resource management and management controls. While most of the report focused on improving the management troubles that plague IIP, it also discussed some of the problems that are inherent in some of its digital “engagement” efforts.
As ASP’s Matthew Wallin outlined in Engagement: What does it Mean for Public Diplomacy?, “engagement” needs to be better defined so that its effectiveness can be measured. The OIG’s report contends that the IIP should focus its efforts to achieve long term public diplomacy goals rather than arbitrary numerical values.
For example, the OIG’s report cites two social media campaigns begun in 2011 and 2012 with the goal of increasing the number of fans of several of the State Department’s Facebook accounts. These campaigns succeeded in their immediate task, increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from around 100,000 to over 2 million. While these numbers may sound impressive, the OIG report questions whether this increase in fans actually helps to critically engage its target audience. The OIG created its own metric for measuring engagement, defining engagement as “’liking,’ sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week.” When viewed in this manner, the success of the two campaigns seems much less significant with just 2 percent of fans “engaged”. Clearly these campaigns sound effective when one looks at only the sheer number of users they have generated, however if these users are not influenced by the outreach, then it may be unlikely that specific policy objectives are being supported.
In some cases, IIP has also had difficulty identifying the correct target audience. As many users of social media are younger, much of the outreach has been targeted to attract their attention. This strategy presents a problem for the short-term, however, as the majority of this youthful audience are not yet in positions of leadership. In order to achieve more immediate public diplomacy goals, the older, wealthy and politically powerful citizens often must be targeted in more traditional fashions outside of social media. The IIP must come up with a long term strategic plan to balance its influence objectives between varying target audiences.
The OIG report praises the work done by the American Spaces, a program that manages the nearly 850 different platforms in 169 countries worldwide. These American Spaces are vital public diplomacy tools because the type of outreach they are able to accomplish is much more tangible than digital social media. In American Spaces, the U.S. is able to have face-to-face contact with foreign citizens and provide them with information about American Culture, foreign policy and society. This is the type of meaningful “engagement” that public diplomacy should be based on. At the American Spaces, public diplomacy outreach is able to work toward educating and informing foreign publics in a more hands-on approach which is much more effective than gaining a “like” or “friend” on Facebook. This approach can help build meaningful personal relationships upon which future foreign policy relationships can be formed, and thus assist in accomplishing long term policy objectives.