Ask questions and you get answers. Assistant Secretary of State Sean McCormack announced a new program to engage the American public in fulfillment of the his mandate "to help Americans understand the importance of foreign affairs."
Sean took a different route - a hybrid route - than his boss and the Department of Defense, both of whom bypassed the Fourth Estate and went after the proto-/pseudo-/pamphleteering media of the Fifth Estate with their own Blogger Roundtables where the discussion was propagated by the bloggers. Instead, Sean used new media - YouTube, Facebook, and State's own blog DipNote - to field questions from the general public and respond directly within the host format. Also unlike the Roundtables, where the principal comes to the table with at least one topic to discussion (i.e. is proactive), Sean the Public Affairs Officer is completely reactive: answers are limited to the questions, although the skill of the speaker creates opportunities to go beyond the question.
A few of us thought this interesting, but we did not envy Sean and thought he was a bit optimistic to think what he was about to do would be, as Sean put it, "fun."
Briefing 2.0, as Sean put it, is an evolutionary step in how the government interacts with the public. This is also a way to bypass the media filter, a reason behind the Blogger Roundtables. Although Sean says this was not a motivator:
Well, most fundamentally, starting this effort had nothing to do with the mainstream media. It was not conceived or executed as a way to bypass the "filter" of the media. In fact, I believe that if you perceived those were my motivations, nobody would be reading this post and we would not have received any video questions. Instead, I started the briefing as part of an ongoing effort to help the State Department communicate with individuals and publics worldwide using the technology and applications available. As I've told my staff, insisting on a 20th century world behind the walls of the State Department while the watching a 21st century world develop outside the walls is not a sustainable posture for any large organization, never mind an institution like the State Department in the business of communication.
However, as important as it is to engage the American public, if the media was doing a fine job of communicating America's nuanced foreign policy, for good or bad, I would imagine there would be no need for this direct engagement. However, time constraints, the firehose of information, and the media's own resource constraints (limited reporters, limit on articles, etc) means some questions may not be asked and yet of interest to the public, many of whom as subject matter experts in their right (of varying degrees).
Well, the Assistant Secretary's question time closed and he posted his video response on Halloween (and no, he did not do it in costume).
I stopped following the questions after the first two, which were, well, a bit of what I expected. However, the first video question, from a student in Baltimore, Sean took was quite interesting and up my alley:
in what ways do the US Diplomatic Corps and US Military work together to combat terrorism and achieve stability... do you see this relationship shifting as conditions change and develop on the ground?
The rest of the questions were quite good. I noticed the question about U.S. Republicans not supporting Scottish and Welsh republicans was not taken by Sean.
In the end, Sean was right, this was fun.
By the way, who was the audience sitting in front of Sean?
- Transcript. Have the briefing transcripted and immediately uploaded to the Federal News Service. Perhaps you didn't do this because you want to avoid the appearance of bypassing the media, but look at it as helping the media by giving them free research assistants. A purpose of the Briefing should be to inject knowledge into the public discourse about American foreign policy. Transcripts will go a long way toward this goal.
- Move quickly on "Briefing 2.1" where, no offence Sean, other State Department people are asked questions by John and Joan Q. Public.
- Move (not as quickly) on "Briefing 2.2" where John and Joan Q. Public are joined by traditional media to ask you questions. The combination of recorded and live questions will be challenging, to be sure, for both questioners and you and only the media will be able to play off the public's question and sometimes expose the real meat and give the respondent the opportunity to get his/her information out there.
- Including live, non-vetted public could be problematic and led to a deterioration of the format, but it should be explored as well. Will this lead to a revamping of the credentialing process and the inclusion of media that otherwise do not have standing representation at your normal briefings? Will bloggers be included or excluded?