The White House, Social Media, and Public Diplomacy

Be sure to read the interesting op-ed by Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post titled A President Goes Friending. It’s pretty clear Mr. Hoagland doesn’t quite know what to make of the new-fangled means of communication. To his credit, he admits it:

My reaction no doubt resembles that of a blacksmith at the turn of the last century catching his first thrilling, then horrifying, glimpse of a motorcar.

Mr. Hoagland is not alone. The media, many public affairs officers, and governments in general, tend to view “now media” as a distinct world and not another channel of communication. Of course with any new medium of engagement there’s a fear. The first “fast” media of the 20th Century, television, was not allowed to cover the US Senate in favor of the “slower” and more comfortable print journalists for decades.

I dispute Mr. Hoagland’s concern that 

there is an increasing tendency in all countries for diplomatic expertise to be devalued, or at least bypassed, in the rush for "unfiltered" communication and governmental blogging.

His correlation is off. The rise of direct communication (e.g. “now media”) increased the need of expertise but “new media” was ignored as pedestrian. The Internet is not a fad (despite what a certain person that will soon be in charge of a certain school for public affairs officers allegedly said). Even today, there remains a discrimination against online media that is selective and at times laughable. As I said in my presentation at NATO and again at InfoWarCon, it is “now media” as both “new” and “old” has merged. Do you or your PAO tell The New York Times or CNN that your comments are not to be published or otherwise available on the web?

The devaluation Mr. Hoagland is writing about is not the bypassing of dead-tree and broadcast mediums or the failure of the dead-tree or broadcast mediums to devote the resources or take the time to analyze information. This is despite the 24/7 format which the broadcast media in particular tend to use as an opportunity for repetition rather than provide serious and iterative analysis. No the devaluation comes from decades of de-emphasizing the importance of public diplomacy and direct engagement.

His bias is spot on however as he complains about bypassing the filter of the media. Direct communication through text messaging, blogs, YouTube videos, or social media sites like Facebook, are simply additional channels everyone must work with.

The advice from the French, the person of Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France's deputy minister in charge of developing new technological networks and commercial practices, is the real take-away from the article:

Governments and political parties "must not wind up like record companies or newspapers" -- that is, slumbering peacefully while their consumers turn to digital communications for entertainment and information, she said, giving me examples of when it was better for her to use Facebook to answer political attacks rather than rely on "the traditional media" to get out a response.