Center for Strategic Communication

After taking in quite a few posts from major news outlets and commentators, I think it’s time to weigh in on the OIG report again. Specifically, I think we need to re-evaluate conclusions drawn about IIP buying “likes” on Facebook.

Put simply, we need to cut IIP some slack on this.

The OIG report was roundly critical of IIP’s leadership style, and reflected a lot of axe-grinding. Like I noted previously, I’m not sure if I can add anything useful to comments about internecine politics of IIP. Nor can I say that another management review is going to solve the problem.

However, I do not think we should be overly critical of the campaign to buy “likes” on Facebook. Diplopundit and John Hudson’s The Cable post on Foreign both seem to indict IIP for the buying strategy, and a host of other blunders. But let’s deal with the “likes” issue first.

Let me just say it: Buying “Likes” is not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s basic corporate marketing practice. Why? Because it establishes touch-points to people that the institution might not otherwise reach. Does that mean these connections are prima facie meangingful relations? Obviously not. But consider the case of the US Embassy in Islamabad. In a country where public opinion about the United States is abysmal, the US has over 1 million likes – a pretty significant statistic given Pakistan has an internet penetration rate of about 15% and 8 million Facebook users.

What’s interesting about many of the critiques is a sense that attention to what’s “popular” or entertaining is somehow money not well-spent. That there is a disconnect between the strategy goals of promoting “innovation, democracy, conservation, and the USA” (former Undersecretary Sonenshines’s words) and the kind of “soft” communication deployed to develop connections. These may eventually lead to the kind of affective investment that can sustain credibility. Yes, even a “Gangnam style” video. If the US is serious about developing relations via social media, it has to be attentive to the cultural practices and idioms that reflect how people already use social media. Good social media-based public diplomacy should not lead with the “serious” stuff, because it’s not only culturally inappropriate for the medium, it’s bad persuasion theory.

Anecdotally, embassies have found better traction (i.e. attention from their audiences) when they reach out to people in this way). As former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs PJ Crowley and former Undersecretary James Glassman noted at a symposium on US public diplomacy last November, in many crucial publics who are less than keen to hear our policy arguments, relying on any rational-deliberative ideal to engage these publics is probably not going to work.

This does not mean that measures of effectiveness no longer apply, but they have to take into account the staged nature of engagement (we can’t assume digital media engagement is a one-off intervention that is directly attributable to a strategic outcome or measure), and, that the measures are asking the right questions. I think the critiques of measurement and evaluation are important – but I think they need to be balanced by a more coherent articulation of what we strategically want digital media interventions to accomplish. Even the OIG report’s call for more strategically articulated justifications for social media programming (quoted at length by Diplopundit) is carefully worded in a way that excludes specifics. Basically, it’s not clear the OIG had a clear sense of what a social media strategy should be other than it should be used strategically, and not for its own sake.

The solution? We don’t need more’s or Kindle give-aways. We also don’t need rudderless social media strategy or redundant efforts online. We do need a more comprehensive institution-wide understanding of how media platforms work as a social and cultural practice to build social capital. This lays the groundwork for more directed information campaigns, and for the latent attitudes and dispositions some might call “soft power.” The US is not going to use Facebook by itself to reach policy ends, but it can be a crucial component in a strategy of building connections.

It’s easy to throw stones at IIP’s digital media strategy. As Forbes published, State should “concentrate their minds upon the things that must be done, the things that must be done that only government can do.” Easy to say when you don’t articulate what those things should be. Rather these arguments come laced with a kind of barely-concealed suspicion about the value of public diplomacy.

So “Focusing on goals, not fans” sounds lie straightfoward advice – but this critique assumes two things: (a) that IIP is operating under the assumption that just getting fans is a goal by itself (probably not), and (b) that we know what the goals are. I am more concerned that there is not a clear indication of how strategic goals are understood as composed of staged, interdependent practices, interventions, and programs across both regular and public diplomacy bureaus. Until that kind of institutional culture integration takes place, it’s still open season on critiquing public diplomacy.