The Obama administration is launching a new strategy aimed at revamping America’s “digital diplomacy” efforts. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has hired Macon Phillips, the 2008 Obama campaign’s digital guru and the man behind many White House digital innovations, to develop ways to expand engagement with foreign audiences.
“Being able to figure out how we can connect what makes America great with foreign audiences is a great way to advance our interests,” Phillips said. “Whether that’s through virtual opportunities or through brick-and-mortar locations, we have to evaluate what’s the most effective based on the audiences we’re trying to reach and the goals we have.”
At the White House, Phillips helped reimagine how the president and his administration communicate directly with the American people — from Twitter and Facebook, to e-mail blasts and blogs, to Google hangouts and live-streaming videos. Phillips also launched “We the People,” the popular online petition program, which 10 million people have used to write and sign petitions, including silly gags that cause headaches for White House aides.
Now, Phillips will be taking over the Bureau of International Information Programs — also known as the government’s “propaganda arm” — at a time when disseminating messages is increasingly complicated.
“It’s a double-edged sword: It’s easier to get information out, but also harder to correct misinformation that’s out there,” said Phillips, who is slated to report to former Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel, who has been nominated as undersecretary for public diplomacy.
During the Cold War, the government could plant a column in a friendly newspaper, drop pamphlets from airplanes or produce radio shows to get out the U.S. message. But now, most foreign nationals have dozens if not hundreds of news sources from which to choose.
“Propaganda doesn’t work well on the Internet; people smell it a million miles away,” said Alec Ross, who oversaw digital strategy as a senior adviser to Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “You can’t just belch out a radio show anymore. You’ve got to be sophisticated analysts and integrate yourself into conversations happening across platforms.”
Phillips wants to apply the lessons of Obama’s campaign — which employed microtargeting and other strategies to deliver messages to specific audiences — to U.S. foreign policy.
“Seeing how much the world has gotten smaller, you really have an enormous opportunity to have a public-diplomacy strategy that’s more technologically driven, more adroit, more personal,” said David Wade, Kerry’s chief of staff.