By Matthew Wallin and Katrina Trost
On Sunday, John Hudson, writing for Foreign Policy, depressingly labeled the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) the red-headed stepchild of the State Department. While the Bureau does indeed have directional and organizational problems, it is more the “forgotten middle child” of distracted, arguing parents rather than an unwanted addition to the family.
In the article, IIP was primarily criticized for spending $630,000 on Facebook “likes.” However, it should be noted that Facebook does not have an option to “buy” likes as has been purported in the media. On any platform, money must often be directed towards methods to expand outreach. On TV and radio, that comes in the form of buying airtime or commercials. ASP Adjunct Fellow and public diplomacy professional Paul Rockower recently commented on his personal blog, “The way Facebook works now means that if you really want to expand impressions and get more eyeballs on your content, you need to cough up some cash. Don’t hate the player, hate the social media game.”
On Facebook, a high number of “likes” generally correlates with more people having seen a post in their feeds. Spending money to boost posts and place advertisements is the method by which an organization expands its visibility, ensuring its postings will be seen by a greater number of people. When an organization has a new or small presence on Facebook, this can be incredibly important for building a larger network which may then virally or organically spread the information that organization posts. Therefore, spending money on Facebook advertising isn’t the problem: it’s measuring whether or not that spending, in combination with content produced, is having a real-world effect with the target audience.
As Hudson pointed out in an earlier article, Facebook viewership must be paired with analysis to measure how many actually click on postings (as opposed to simply liking), how much time is spent on links, and if any action is taken as a result. As in all public diplomacy initiatives, metrics are key.
Hudson also referred to the often confusing responsibilities of IIP, the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and the Bureau of Public Affairs. The Bureaus are all tools in the arsenal of the Office of the Undersecretary, and must be coordinated like a fine-tuned system. To be successful, public diplomacy must resonate with the target audience and follow a clear foreign policy goal. This requires a steady guiding hand to oversee new initiatives and methods. Inter-office turf wars only serve to weaken overall effectiveness.
Further adding to some of IIP’s woes, since the creation of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the position has been vacant over 30% of the time. Successful leadership necessitates an actual leader, and the next Under Secretary should have professional experience, a strong strategic vision, and the President’s ear.
Once a strong leader is appointed, that person can continue the work necessary to solve the organizational issues of IIP. During Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine’s strong but short tenure, public diplomacy attained a new lease on life and strong programs were significantly bolstered. This robust leadership must be continued, especially since the three Bureaus under the Under Secretary are all basically working for the same basic principle.
One of Hudson ‘s sources explained the need for a flagship program that the IIP can point to as an example of successful public diplomacy. American Spaces, a program that operates in 169 countries worldwide, is just the type of program to advertise. American Spaces concentrate on real world relationship building and people-to-people interaction. Public diplomacy is a vital element of national security, and IIP’s programming and content production truly benefits the work of U.S. Embassies and other efforts abroad.
Social media should remain a large component of daily State Department activity, but it is not a “be-all end-all” for public diplomacy. It is merely another tool in the arsenal, and one that should be used appropriately to reach target audiences and work towards achieving foreign policy goals. As ASP has contended before, “engagement through the internet and social media is best when used as a component of real-world public diplomacy.”
IIP is a bureau that is often overlooked, but continues to forge ahead with sometimes absent leadership and vision. With new direction and clearly defined metrics, the bureau can fully and effectively act as a 21st Century communicator. A more cohesive Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, with policy and method cooperation between bureaus will help the overlooked middle child to develop and find necessary lasting success.