All a twitter over some tweets

There seems to be some real consternation over Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy’s tweeting on Twitter. In today’s The Washington Post, Colleen tells why she tweets:

Why did I do it? Not that long ago, communicating diplomat-to-diplomat was enough. Agreements were reached behind closed doors and announced in a manner and degree that suited the schedule and desires of the governments involved, not the general population. In fact, the public was by and large an afterthought. But the proliferation of democracies and the emergence of the round-the-clock media environment has brought an end to those days. Now, governments must communicate not only with their people but also with foreign audiences, including through public diplomacy.

In short, public diplomacy is the art of communicating a country’s policies, values and culture. If diplomats want to engage effectively with people, we first need to listen, then connect and then communicate. In the part of the world that I know and cover, Europe and Eurasia, most people are tuned in to television, and the younger generation is using text messages and the Internet. So, we need to be there, too.

Some criticize the TMI tweets (like the bathing suit) but there are a few who take issue with the basic concept that a public diplomat is, gasp, publically engaging. One such criticism is that “In the absence of such a clear message, we run the risk of our personal communications efforts eclipsing our official ones.” Based on the belief that personal engagement is adjunct to traditional diplomacy dismisses the underlying essence of public diplomacy as a means of direct and indirect engagement of foreign publics in support of national security objectives. Or rather, it dismisses the the underlying essence of what public diplomacy used to be and is once again becoming.

The flitter over Colleen’s twitter is more about the rarity of her exercise and challenges to the concepts of public diplomacy than anything else.

Public diplomacy was never supposed to be about one-way conversations, but humanized engagement. It *was* based on “them versus them” engagement as PD officers and programs empowered locals. The operating mantra is and must be “by, with and through” but instead we lost the way and increasingly focused on beauty contests and “winning hearts”.

We are in a constant, dynamic, and global struggle for minds and wills. While Colleen’s “tweets” are at times hyper-personal, they are inline with the personalization required to engage in the modern environment. Recall the Digital Outreach Team’s successful engagement with the Iranian official that the Under Secretary rightly bragged about? A principle failing that in part led to the end of the conversation, as indicated in the transcripts, was the failure to humanize the American side of the conversation.

If personalizing who we are is unimportant, let’s end the cultural and exchange programs right now. If communicating personally is wrong, stop the military from promoting the 4-E’s – education, equip, empower, encourage – to adapt to the modern global information environment.

In the Cold War, legendary public diplomats like Yale Richmond operated in the “sea of the people”, getting to know and being known by locals. Colleen’s efforts are in more ways than not a modern translation Yale’s efforts.

There may also be an unintended dividend here in educating Americans of what goes on overseas in America’s name (and with America’s dollar). I don’t know the stats on her followers, but I wonder if more Americans are paying attention than non-Americans (regardless of quaint geo-political borders). Very likely this is the case because at least the media is following, which is acting like the amplifier and megaphone it should by rebroadcasting her actions within the U.S. (In some respects, might that be a violation of Smith-Mundt? We can talk about that January 13, 2009, at the Smith-Mundt Symposium.)

We need more people with the freedom to do what Colleen is doing and we need more Yale Richmond’s as well. Why aren’t there more regional PD officers? More to the point of this readership, why aren’t there more regional career FSO’s doing this work? Is it merely funding? Who will ask for the funding and implement the changes requires and build confidence in the Congress.

There have been many commentaries over the last several days about the resourcing of PD and of State in general. In today’s modern world where state autonomy is reduced and nationalism must be redefined, focusing on official outreach at the Foreign Ministry level is not the only part of the pie. We cannot continue to think of “official” Track I diplomacy as separate as Track II: they are co-mingled in the modern world to do otherwise is tremendously quaint. In fact, public diplomacy is mutually supportive of everything, including foreign aid.

Look back at the Marshall Plan and the Smith-Mundt Act. The plan’s effectiveness was being drowned out by adversarial propaganda to which Smith-Mundt was finally passed to addressed. Contrary to today, this was a case were deeds needed the support of words. Consider also what the impact of the Berlin Airlift would have been without Smith-Mundt’s institionalization of grassroots engagement?

It is unfortunately correct that there is no “overarching message from our government about what we stand for.” But this is not the primary problem. It is downstream from the real issue. Too many commentaries focus on this and thus confuse efforts like Colleen’s and even the reticent Defense Department’s role in global (not US vice Non-US) engagement (not one-way). There is no understanding of the purpose of public diplomacy and equally important no leadership in the field. Isn’t it a bit odd that in all of the pronouncements on revising public diplomacy, there is rarely if any mention of the Secretary of State or her boss? The many reports on public diplomacy and strategic communication (which incidentally generally does not make the error of bifurcating the world’s information ecosystem) largely ignore the issue of leadership to right the ship.

Under Secretary Jim Glassman, for example, can only do so much as he spends his short tenure on the low-hanging fruit as does what he can to fix public diplomacy so his successor can hit the ground running. Is Jim’s boss and her boss beating doors to get Congress involved? Why is the Secretary of Defense speaks out on the need to expand public diplomacy but the Secretary of State does not?

If we are in a “war of ideas” today (a label I am reticent to use but it gets the point across), it is our second war. The first began almost immediately after World War II. The Smith-Mundt Act was how we armed for that fight. That effort had the support and participation of the State Department, notably the Assistant Secretary of State, but also two Secretaries of State who testified in support of the bill, as well as the President. It also had the support of many members of Congress as they held numerous hearings and publically debated the subject in America’s media. Further, it had the support of the media itself and of academia. Where is this support today? Instead today we have point solutions without any real attempt at comprehensive and collaborative effort to address the problems. Again, where is the leadership? That is the real question. Colleen’s tweets should not be singular but should be part of a cacophony.

See also the following models that DipNote / State Department public diplomacy should consider emulating:

On the topic of new media, this blog is now on Twitter and Facebook.

2 thoughts on “All a twitter over some tweets

  1. Come on, Matt. You know that The World of “In the Loop” is all about personalities, not policies. Political appointee and PD neophyte Colleen Graffy wouldn’t have received so much as a twittering mention without the constant flood of comments the Post gets about her from her colleagues and underlings. Your symposium may be her swan song in her current garb, since she’s a lame duck. But please, don’t try selling this amateur as a representative of State PD professionalism. She’s part of the problem, not the solution.

  2. I understand the discomfort and even frustration and annoyance with Colleen Graffy. I have heard it often. However, the focus of my post was not to emphasize her use of the technology but rather the general value of it for public diplomacy. In other words, my focus is on encouraging the tactics of personal engagement that humanizes / puts a face to a name, hence the suggestion to look at blogging examples of the FCO and CAC in the See Also block at the end of the post.This is form v function. While some debate the form, I’m looking at the function and the function should be encouraged.

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