As revolution swept the Arab world, the State Department spent more than $600,000 on social-media ads trying to increase foreign viewership of the department’s Facebook pages.
But according to an inspector general’s report, the effort had limited success: Just 2 percent of users shared or liked what they read in a given week. The episode illustrates the difficulties that the U.S. government has long faced in trying to sway public opinion abroad.
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.
For years, the State Department has been trying to influence foreign audiences digitally with mixed results. During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a technology aficionado, invested in new tools to reach foreigners with messages in their own languages. His successor, Condoleezza Rice, used technology to communicate with people trying to advance democracy movements.
“It’s not a panacea at all, but even skeptical audiences watch what we do and listen to what we say because of the nature of our place in the world,” said Stuart Holliday, who ran the information bureau under Powell and is now president of the Meridian International Center.
Clinton recruited her own digital hotshots to Foggy Bottom. Through social media, they raised $40 million to help victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A 2012 study by Deloitte and the Partnership for Public Service rated the State Department as having the most innovation-friendly culture of any Cabinet-level agency.
But much of the department’s A-list digital talent has moved on: Katie Jacobs Stanton directs international strategy at Twitter, Jared Cohen runs Google Ideas and Ross is writing a book.
A challenge for Phillips and his team is not simply reaching foreigners, but persuading them to change their views about the United States.
In 2011 and 2012, after the bureau spent the money to promote its Facebook postings, the number of fans on the State Department’s English language Facebook pages grew from about 100,000 to 2 million for each page, according to the May inspector general’s report. But “buying fans” did not necessarily translate into engagement. For instance, the report found that many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares.
“It’s easy to get seduced by metrics and lose sight of what you’re actually trying to do,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is a huge instinct to go after the low-hanging fruit and rack up big numbers and talk about who you’ve reached rather than measure who you’ve affected and how.”
Another challenge for Phillips will be to change the culture at the tradition-bound information bureau. The inspector general’s report found that morale was low and that “leadership created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty.”
Administration officials said they’re counting on Phillips to turn the page.
When the Alabama native interviewed with Kerry, their scheduled 30-minute session stretched to 90 minutes, aides said. They talked about the evolution of statecraft, from Foreign Service members taking days or weeks to write cables to other diplomats in the days when Kerry’s father served to today’s instant and open communication.
Wade said Phillips is “a visionary, but he’s also operational.”
“He’s not a tech guru who’s going to walk into government, become frustrated and walk out,” Wade said. “He’s somebody who’s already figured out how you square that circle. ”