Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Defending Foggy Bottom over Digital Diplomacy

A story broke last week from an OIG report about the State Dept's Bureau of International Information Programming (IIP) spending $630,000 to promote content on Facebook. In short, the article that brought it up (OMG! State Department Dropped $630,000 on Facebook “Likes”) was none to kind, and the story became a political football to bash State Department for wasteful spending.

Except it wasn't wasteful. Due to the way Facebook is jiggered these days, it is how you get broader outreach.  I commented on the article:
I work on the social media side of things, and I'm going to defend State Dept here. 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.
The comments and retorts did not exactly appreciate my points.

One particular person accused me of working for IIP and being a "yes man"
You don't like this report because you are one of IIP employee who worked on this project and you have been asked to comment on this article. I thik IIP wasted tax payers money on project not worth it just to be "yes man".
I laughed and lashed back:
Haha, I most certainly do not work for IIP or State. I imagine you know as much about digital outreach strategies for public diplomacy as you do about my employment. If the money was spent to draw more people in to the sites, and promote impressions related to various Embassies' programming, it was probably money well-spent. Over the course of 2 years, and in the grand scheme of digital diplomacy outreach, that amount represents a paltry sum, and probably had better ROI than appreciated.
Another person commented:
Maybe it's just me, but can anyone explain who will be tortured to death if the Facebook page of a government department no one cares about, unless they are taking a vacation to a war torn country, has the "wrong number" of likes?
I responded:
I doubt it was just about the number of "likes" for a particular page. Digital diplomacy outreach represents an important part of public diplomacy, and if you want more people to see what kind of cultural diplomacy program you are doing in country, you need to bring people into the community that is your Embassy Facebook page.
That comment was picked up by Al-Jazeera.

Peter Van Buren ("We Meant Well"), whose work I know and respect, was still critical:
You're confusing quantity with quality. If no one thinks your message is credible, it does not matter how many page views you get. Stop wasting our tax money on this stuff.
I responded:
...on facebook as it is currently jiggered, the quantity of impressions leads to quality if you can get more people looking at good content. If it is about buying content, I agree with you; but if it is about promoting facebook posts related to real cultural diplomacy done by embassies or other things of pd value, then it is not wasted money but rather pretty well spent.
And I left one last comment for good measure:
To all the naysayers about this so-called waste of taxpayer funds, I offer this: it costs more than $850,000 to send one soldier to Afghanistan. Now, I ask this: what is a better investment in taxpayer funds, investing $630k over approximately 2 years in digital diplomacy outreach to use social media for better public diplomacy communication, or sending one more soldier to Afghanistan?
I wasn't the only one defending State on this issue (kudos Prof. Hayden), but I was definitely one of the few.

One of my biggest issues in this whole discussion is that I sincerely doubt that the OIG has someone who knows their salt about evaluating social media strategies and ROI for public diplomacy purposes.  Caveat emptor: I have not read the OIG report.  Why should I? I am in Paris, I have far better things to do....

But it is my understanding from a few informed sources, who did the reading so I didn't have to, that the particular social media critique is riddled with uniformed comments that underscore the OIG's lack of knowledge about social media platforms like questioning competition of twitter and facebook by Embassy sites.  That is basic platform knowledge that no one with a social media background would confuse.

So this is the point where I make my point:

There is a great picture and story that was posted on the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia's Facebook page:

During ‪#‎Ramadan‬, young Muslim volunteers prepare packaged meals with rice and dehydrated vegetables for less fortunate families in the Detroit area. The volunteer event was organized by Islamic Relief USA.
That is a great picture and a powerful story of sacrifice by American Muslim youth, who are both fasting for Ramadan and preparing food for those less fortunate.  That picture and story communicates both American tolerance and American values of service.  And no one would have seen it or "liked" it if digital diplomacy groundwork had not been laid.

You can't just post something on a page, and expect the world to like it.  You have to build your outreach, and unfortunately, that requires a bit of investment.  But the quantity of "likes" and number of people in your network community that is your Facebook page leads to more impressions and better quality interactions.

If such groundwork had not been done through previous social media investments, it is doubtful that the aforementioned picture and story would garner approximately 100 "likes" almost immediately.

Those who don't understand how such digital diplomacy outreach works were quick to pounce on this issue as some sort of Foggy Bottom government waste: they were wrong.  The investments in digital diplomacy will bear future fruit in manners that is not yet understood or appreciated.


Matthew Wallin said...

The OIG report acknowledges that payment is now a requirement for improving outreach on Facebook. Where I agree significantly with the report is that there isn't enough measurement as to what "likes" really amount to. My own research into State's social media outreach shows an almost deliberate effort to obscure who is actually being reached with efforts on facebook and twitter. Target audience vs perceived audience vs actual audience. And that was my key take-away from the report, other than the extreme management issues---you don't do social media just because it's there, you have to demonstrate that you are doing it well and having an effect, just like any other media platform.

And beyond that, there doesn't often seem to be much of an effort to corroborate what you're rightly discussing here, which is how the social media likes are converted into real-world relationship building. How is social media being connected to real world action? There are some documented instances of this, but IIP needs to highlight this and demonstrate the connection more.

Paul Rockower said...

Well said, Monsieur Wallin. That beard adds to your status as a senior policy analyst.

Here is my issue, this policy discussion is not happening in a vacuum. No one is connecting the dots you speak of. It just hasn't been done yet. Is that an issue? Perhaps. But you can't chide State for not doing something no one has figured out.

Meanwhile, State's digital diplomacy outreach is still head-and-shoulders above any other Foreign Ministry's outreach (save for @sweden!).

Context is key here. State shouldn't be judged by the perfect but rather by contextual environment to which it is working in.

Mazin Melegy said...

Paul, much respect, but I have to say I think you're being a little soft on State here.

While the six figure total spent on FB likes may be small by government expenditure standards, that's a whole lot of money to spend on accruing FB likes that are not your target audience.

While I'm not marching on Foggy Bottom with a pitchfork demanding the fall of the regime, I do have to agree with Matthew here: State needs to communicate a strategy for engaging foreign publics on social media channels.

Matthew Wallin said...

Mazin, you said the word "engaging!" NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! :)

Paul Rockower said...


Paul Rockower said...

Mazin, you raise a good point. But I am curious why is the general digital public (youth, especially) of respective countries that is the various Embassies' target audience of digital public diplomacy outreach not the broad target? Who else do you target with this biz?

If State is targeting foreign policy makers and upcoming leaders, there are more precise tools like IVLP, Muskie Fellowships and other direct exchanges. But that is not what digital PD is all about. DigiPD is using the broad spectrum platforms of social media to reach out far and wide.

And I'm guessing you can probably find ample fodder of State Dept's comm strategy in some fancy acronymed QDDR or something like that.

State is pretty good at coming up with strategies and implementing them; they are not exactly the best at communicating these strategies domestically [but that is another, longer convo]

Mazin Melegy said...

OH boy I fell into a trap I didn't even know existed!

Paul, I'm with you on the target audience, which is why I was surprised to read that State's target audience with their Facebook page was NOT youth. Why are they on Facebook, then?

Paul Rockower said...

It's a Trap!!!

Who of any credible authority said youth was not there target audience?

Who else uses social media to such a high degree? My grandfather isn't on Facebook (although probably on OKCupid)

Matthew Wallin said...

But does the "broad youth" actually care what the State Department has to say on social media? Or are they more concerned about...idk...talking to their friends?

Is the content something that excites the general youth? Government don't usually produce content that internet culture thrives on.

Arguably, the governments command the least possible amount of attention on social media outlets precisely because it is a medium that by its very nature dilutes the power of governments and instead gives it to individuals.

Social media is supposed to also be a tool for listening. So let's think about this for a moment: State/IIP posts get x number of likes. How many likes does State/IIP give to individuals?

Paul Rockower said...

Yes, when it is micro-targeted by local Posts. English Micro-Access students check-in on Facebook or twitter to the comic book program at the American Corner in Dushanbe, or the Della Mae show in Bishkek. How local audience is built. It is NOT State writ-large that matters, but how Posts are connecting locally, and IIP has done good work to help Posts connect on a local level (I could send you all the great content they did for the Dellas in the 'Stans). It is listening, and communicating, and dare I say it, ENGAGING (DING DING DING) with local audiences on a local level, which is what this is all about.

Mazin Melegy said...

Paul, I think you're making a good case that State is doing better than we give them credit for.

I think what's clear is that they are having a hard time communicating those successes. The shortcomings are manifest!

Paul Rockower said...

I know better than most about State's inability to communicate successes. It is ironic that those charged with communicating abroad have such a hard time doing it at home.

But I think that is a problem for most public diplomats the world over.

Yes, the shortcoming are manifest, but it is hard to communicate for the long-term in modern culture that can be quite shortsighted.

The case for long-term engagement (DING DING DING) is hard to qualify in a world that cares to quantify. But 2 million likes or so is a solid quantification, me thinks. And a good ROI.

John Brown said...

My only comment -- for what's it's worth -- to this important piece is, like, I don't really know what "like" means. It's an overused word -- financial "pundits" say they "like" a "position" -- that has degenerated into total meaninglessness, especially when abused by adolescents (and, increasingly, adults) as a "verbal tic" used to cover up their inability to express themselves via the spoken word.

Why not get rid of "like" on Facebook altogether(if not, as currently misused, from the English language as a whole)? This would do much to improve Americans' so-called "engagement" with foreign audience, who might perhaps begin to understand, without the "like" virus, what we are "communicating" about.

John Brown said...

should be "audiences."