Center for Strategic Communication

by Nicholas Brody

This is the fourth part of a five part series on about the one-year anniversary of the State Department’s Dipnote blog. In Part 1 we focused on reviewing DipNote management and processes. In Part 2 we looked at what the State Department bloggers were writing about. In Part 3 we conducted an in-depth content analysis of reader comments on the blog.  In this post I look at the larger context of Web 2.0 effort being pursued by the State Department, of which Dipnote is a part.

In analyzing Dipnote comments in Part 3, we found that the “Responses to Others’ Comments” category was the second largest—an interesting finding revealing the extent and centrality of social interaction between readers. However, there was much less direct interaction between the bloggers and commenters. New forms of social media, many of which the State Department has begun to embrace, offer unique tools for more direct interaction with their audiences for public affairs and public diplomacy efforts.

Last week I had the chance to interview State Department spokesman and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack.  He has been a driving force behind many of the department’s new media efforts. During the interview, McCorcack mentioned that when he took over in 2005 much of the work of the Public Affairs office was centered on the daily press briefings. However, he saw an opportunity to embrace media efforts to disseminate content:

I thought it was a great opportunity to provide people the raw information, the transcripts, the videos, the photos, etc. that we produce. We produce a tremendous amount of content here at the State Department every single day that people are interested in. So, given where the Internet was headed, the various new applications and technologies that were out there, there was a great opportunity to allow people to access this information firsthand.

The efforts were inspired by his trip to Silicon Valley in 2006, during which he was impressed by the “creative, goal-oriented spirit” of the Internet industry.  McCormack decided to build the technical aptitude of his department to help foster a more creative approach to their online efforts.

This was the genesis of Dipnote and the other Web 2.0 efforts of the department today.  Results can be seen in web site usage statistics.  According to McCormack, in 2005 the State Department website received about nine million hits per month. Currently, they receive around eighteen million hits per month.

In further efforts to increase direct interaction with the public, McCormack recently initiated Briefing 2.0. Inspired by the CNN Youtube debates during the presidential primaries, he saw another opportunity to directly engage the public. While originally the briefing was to be combined with the daily press briefings, he decided that the goals of Briefing 2.0 were distinct, and would benefit from a separate event.  The first briefing took place last month, and questions have just been answered in the second round.

In May of this year, the State Department created a Facebook page.  It is fairly straightforward. The group page contains links to the State Department Flickr site, a discussion board, and links to recent blog posts. It has 853 “fans.”  The discussion board is not very active.  It currently contains five topics.  The most active of these is the opening post, inviting users to say what they would like to see on the page.  That thread has 15 replies, many noting Facebook pages at existing embassies (see below).  In contrast to Dipnote, all but one reply has a rejoinder from a State Department employee.  As the page continues to grow and develop a larger fan base, it should be able to direct more traffic to Dipnote and other public affairs efforts.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the line between public affairs and public diplomacy becomes more and more fuzzy. For example, on Dipnote (presumably a public affairs outlet) many of the commenters are from foreign countries. Facebook also has domestic and international potential.  It is offered in 38 languages, indicating an international user-base. While the content of the State Department Facebook page may be targeted to domestic audiences, it has potential as a global medium for public diplomacy goals as well.

I was surprised to find Facebook pages for individual embassies, often in native languages. As it turns out, so was McCormack.  He didn’t learn of the embassy pages until he considered setting up a page for the Mother Ship and started doing research.  Facebook pages exist for U.S. Embassies in Egypt, Japan, Lebanon, Montenegro and Uraguay.

I took a look at one of these, the U.S. Embassy in Uruguay. It has 483 “fans”, many of whom appear to be Uruguayan citizens. Their “Wall” contains almost 50 comments (in Spanish of course) regarding U.S. politics and questions about the daily operations of the Embassy. We salute this effort to follow pragmatic complexity principles: By allowing users to dictate the theme of the group, this embassy is deemphasizing control of the message, and promoting a more complex communication structure.

The structure of the State Department certainly plays a role in the immersion of these somewhat disconnected Facebook efforts. While he has no direct control over the use of Facebook by the embassies,  McCormack emphasized their importance:

I think it’s going to be, going forward, very important for the embassies to develop these kind of engagements with their publics. It’s important for their efforts to ensure we don’t have a 20th century state department in a 21st century world.

In contrast to its Facebook efforts, the State Department’s use of Twitter leaves quite a bit to be desired. The Twitter website explains its goals succinctly:

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

But to date, the State Department has used its Twitter account only as a means to disseminate new Dipnote posts, something that is already accomplished through its RSS feed. To truly engage in public diplomacy and public affairs, they should embrace the Twitter mission statement by keeping us informed about what they are doing. Is the Secretary of State currently in talks with a foreign leader? Are ambassadors in Sudan in talks over the tragedy in Darfur? Dipnote usually discusses these events in-depth.  But the strength of Twitter is its speed and conciseness.  McCormack agrees with this—and thinks that as more State Department employees incorporate Twitter into their personal daily routine, the Department’s Twitter efforts will benefit as a result.

While the efforts of Public Affairs efforts are by definition targeted at a domestic audience, State Department content is now consumed globally. The Bureau of Information Programs and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, produce content for the global audience. Going forward, these efforts can be combined to take further advantage of the worldwide interconnectivity provided by new technologies.

In the upcoming final part of this series, we draw implications from our one-year anniversary review of Dipnote and other new media efforts by the State Department, and offer recommendations for improving these efforts in the future.