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Monday, June 1, 2009

Facebook, Internet, and Public Diplomacy

Source: Council on Foreign Relations | Lee Hudson Teslik, Associate Editor, CFR.org

Interviewed by the Council on Foreign Relations, Facebook’s vice president of global communications Elliott Schrage outlines a strategy for governments seeking to incorporate online social networking into their public diplomacy efforts.

Here is an extract from the interview:

If we’re looking at public diplomacy efforts, how should governments structure the way they are thinking about Facebook and other sites like it?

It’s much too narrow to view this through the prism of advertising. This is really about communications and outreach. So the question is, how do you build an audience? How do you establish a community of interests? That’s as true for the maker of laundry detergent as it is for someone who has a stimulus package for economic growth.

The question is: How do you create a community, and how do you build and nurture a community? To some extent, Facebook and the tools associated with it are incredibly valuable, perhaps even more valuable for people who have clear messages or clear issues that they want to address. Sure, advertising is one mechanism, but really what it’s about is communicating a message, finding a community, and building that community, engaging that community. So, do I see Facebook as being an incredibly valuable tool for public diplomacy? Absolutely.

Some of the most interesting uses of Facebook have been for the purpose of social action, which is essentially political action, whether it’s an extraordinary rallying of support by the Colombian community around the world to protest the terrorist activities of FARC–the Colombian militants–or whether it’s students protesting bank fees and bank charges in Great Britain, or whether it’s the Obama presidential campaign generating almost six million supporters on Facebook as a means of communicating his policies, his positions, and his campaign activities.

The State Department is now Twittering. From an outreach perspective, it seems like there’s a problem, or at least a limitation, for governments wanting to use these sorts of social networking technologies, because the people signing up for their feeds or their fan pages are going to be the people who want to be hearing that government’s message anyway.

The question is, what are the public diplomacy messages? If the messages are “we care about the rights of women,” and there are actions being taken either in a particular country or around the world, there are people who care about that who will want to learn that information. And if that information feeds into their stream, or their “news feed,” that information will be shared with their friends. And some of their friends will find that information interesting and they’ll want to sign up. The viral nature of communication through Facebook is, if anything, enhanced by thoughtful public diplomacy–if it’s thoughtful and if it really connects with an audience.

The challenge is, how do we move the dialogue away from a government-to-government dialogue, and more toward engaging citizens on the ground. I don’t think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you’re going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn’t, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.