A Tweet in Foggy Bottom

By Colleen P. Graffy
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As I got ready for an overseas trip this month, I did the things diplomats normally do: I made last-minute calls, prepared notes from meetings, packed briefing materials and travel documents. Then I did something that reflects how the world of public diplomacy is changing to adapt to the digital age: I sent a tweet.

"Tweets" are the lingua franca of Twitter, a social networking tool in which you "micro-share" (140 characters or fewer) a response to the question: What are you doing?

Why did I do it? Not that long ago, communicating diplomat-to-diplomat was enough. Agreements were reached behind closed doors and announced in a manner and degree that suited the schedule and desires of the governments involved, not the general population. In fact, the public was by and large an afterthought. But the proliferation of democracies and the emergence of the round-the-clock media environment has brought an end to those days. Now, governments must communicate not only with their people but also with foreign audiences, including through public diplomacy.

In short, public diplomacy is the art of communicating a country's policies, values and culture. If diplomats want to engage effectively with people, we first need to listen, then connect and then communicate. In the part of the world that I know and cover, Europe and Eurasia, most people are tuned in to television, and the younger generation is using text messages and the Internet. So, we need to be there, too.

This is among the reasons the United States built a "media hub" in Brussels -- so we could be accessible to the 1,200 journalists covering the European Union and offer them broadcast-quality television and video content tailored for their countries' media needs.

It is also why the State Department introduced "Public Diplomacy 2.0," social networking for State alumni, enhanced Web sites, blogs and Facebook pages for embassies; and why we launched "Green Diplomacy" to connect with people, particularly young people, who care about their environment. In Europe as well as in the United States, all politics are local, and we need to be listening to and participating in the conversations.

My Tweets from my trip this month were noted in The Post [In the Loop, Dec. 10]. Simply put, Twitter is just one more tool through which we can connect, and by linking my messages to video and photos, I can inform whole new audiences about U.S. views and ideas in a format with which they feel comfortable. Twitter blends the personal with the professional: To get your message across, you have to show there's a real person doing the posting. Ideally, you attract curiosity by noting the personal (like my reference to plunging into Iceland's Blue Lagoon), and the audience will read the rest (such as my interview with Pro TV in Moldova and A1+ in Armenia to show our support for free and independent media).

On trips to Romania, Moldova, Iceland, Croatia and Armenia, I posted to Twitter. One motivation was to let Americans know about our embassies' public diplomacy outreach. I have been frustrated by the constant refrain that everyone hates America and that our embassies aren't "doing" public diplomacy the way they did in the good ol' Cold War days. The fact is that overseas, there is enormous affection and admiration for the United States, and our embassies have terrific and creative programs. But we must work at communicating that. U.S. newspapers don't typically cover events from our embassies -- such as the two "Cultural Envoys" from Colorado who staged Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company" in Vladivostok, Russia, before enthusiastic audiences, or the University of Tennessee journalism professor we sponsor who is helping professional journalism to develop in Croatia.

The other reason to Twitter my trip was simple: Communicating in this peppy, informal medium helped to personalize my visit and enhance my impact as a U.S. official. When I met with students at the University of Bucharest, and later with Moldovan bloggers, we were connected before I even arrived. One young Romanian student said: "We feel like we already know you -- you are not some intimidating government official. We feel comfortable talking with you."

Isn't that what effective public diplomacy is about?

One clear lesson that emerged from the Cold War was that winning hearts and minds required communicating in a way that "connected" with people on their terms, whether through film or jazz or jeans. To keep our public diplomacy relevant today, we have to reach out and connect with people on their terms, whether we use blogs or texts -- or tweets.

The writer is deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy.

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