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A President Goes Friending

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 3, 2009

President Obama will not twit, I have been authoritatively informed. Or should that be tweet? Unsure about the correct verb form for sending Twitter messages, I turned for guidance to my authoritative informer, Macon Phillips, the affable young Internet specialist in charge of the White House's new-media office.

He seemed unsure as well. "But I don't think the president is the right person for this. There are better ways to engage the micro-blogging community," he told me, explaining at another point: "We try to find the audiences where they are, and deliver the president's message to them at the best delivery point." That now includes Twitter, where the White House established an institutional presence last week.

The targets include audiences worldwide. Establishing direct strategic presidential communication with the populations of other countries -- especially other countries ruled by hostile governments -- is a top foreign policy priority for the new administration.

Phillips, 30, helped drive the innovative use of Facebook and other online social networks, YouTube videos, and fundraising on the Internet in the 2008 presidential campaign. He is now working with Obama's National Security Council staff to turn these new communications channels into important tools for winning friends and understanding abroad.

The two offices collaborated in designing the March 20 video message that Obama directed to the Iranian people, which has drawn 500,000 viewers, according to Phillips, and apparently thrown Tehran off balance as it ponders responding to the administration's outreach. Phillips says that Iranian viewers have downloaded the video, remixed it with their own comments and put it back on the Web, a sign of "engaging with the message."

I confess to being ambivalent about the intrusion of these newfangled devices into the once-carefully choreographed spheres of diplomacy and foreign policy analysis. 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.

It makes sense for leaders and politicians to use all tools available, especially new ones that have such direct impact, and especially when the product to market is as magnetic as Obama. "The president is a unique American messenger to the world," says another Obama aide. I fully agree.

And Obama has not neglected his in-the-flesh duties. He held 44 face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders, attended four international summits and staged 11 news conferences abroad in his first 100 days in office.

But 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. This may be compounded in Obama's case by a coming retreat on his campaign pledges not to reward campaign fundraisers and donors with important ambassadorships. Stocking European posts with his own rich Chicago patrons will not bring change to a Washington culture that Obama continues to decry.

Foreign governments have started to notice the emphasis that the administration puts on strategic communications. One recent visitor to Phillips at the White House was Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France's deputy minister in charge of developing new technological networks and commercial practices to make her nation a global digital economic power.

She is also a rising star in French politics. At 35, she is the second-ranking official in President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party and is recognizable to the French public by her initials, NKM, in headlines. With great charm and good cheer, she helped me understand the extent to which younger politicians in country after country are abandoning "the traditional media," as she gently put it -- or "the media filter," as some at the Obama White House describe my ilk -- to twit/tweet, blog, telecommunicate and otherwise engage directly with their constituents.

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. And, she said, politicians now have to know how to "flood" Google -- to drive negative news down the page of search results that pop up on a computer screen.

This cutting-edge technological vocabulary was especially striking coming from the granddaughter of Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet, a French World War II hero who became a distinguished ambassador to Washington in the 1970s. "He was a mirror of his time," she told me. The same can certainly be said of her.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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