Friday, February 27, 2009

Diplomatic Bloggers: Official Blogs, Art Thou Here to Stay?

The State Department has DipNote where posts are written, with some exceptions, by the mostly nameless “DipNote Bloggers.” The Brits has the FCO Bloggers: Global Conversations website which collects their official bloggers in one place, complete with full names and titles, including the Foreign Office Secretary David Milliband, who posts regularly. I don’t know of any other large collection of diplomatic bloggers, except these and the un-official ones (diplomats/diplomatic community members blogging in their private capacity).

The former British Ambassador Charles Crawford has written a few posts on diplomatic blogging. He thought in his post here that “the FCO has a goodly bunch, albeit with tone of unrelenting 'corporate' cheeriness, eschewing anything controversial/awkward in policy or philosphical terms.” But his indictment was that “FCO blogs are a friendly but bland product, making no serious contribution to the 'global foreign policy debate'.

I kind of look at both DipNote and the FCO Blogs as toddlers learning to walk; my hope is that they are fast learners and that they will become more agile as they grow older. Well, one can hope, and hoping is still free…

I have started reading the FCO bloggers because they provide a bit more flavor than our folks over at C Street and I like some of them because of the personal tone. One comment about the blogs: FCO bloggers try to keep to policy areas they have responsiblity for. Diverging from this has caused the odd frantic call from London to the offending blogger. What? They do that?

But Why Would a Diplomat Blog?

One of the FCO blogs by Stephen Hale, the Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, tries to explain where FCO blogging fits in to the UK's foreign policy priorities: More niche blogs, with well defined objectives, linked to specific projects or campaigns. Because the web is about niches, and it's within niches that blogs can have real value. We want our bloggers to reach their particular target audiences (rather than to generate general-interest traffic). Read Stephen Hale’s Why Would a Diplomat Blog?

Ambassador Crawford still is not convinced with its utility, writing: “But how precisely do you begin to define what a 'target audience' is for any given diplomatic blog then target it without being at least a bit sharp and different? It takes months if not years to build up a non-trivial readership - blandness is not the way to do it.” Noah Shachtman over at Danger Room wrote something about this recently in his Info Wars post: “…you need a message that's sharp, and simple. Bland statements-by-committee just don't work. In fact, the more you vet and control your statements, the less effective it is.”

I think that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back in. So here we are; the choices are clear ‘cuz according to the French – “the absent are always wrong.”

Blogs and the other new/social media provide an opportunity to improved engagement among the immediate audience and the larger global audience of these organizations. It is an entirely different world out there; the information superhighway has gotten terribly busier. Although Asia has the largest number of Internet users in the world at 650.4 millions, two other regions register the highest growth of internet usage between 2000-2008. Wanna guess which two?

The Middle East with a growth rate of Internet usage at 1,296.2 %

And Africa with a growth rate of 1,100.0 %.

This should give us some pause.

An Op-ed a Day, Rapid Response or Something Else?

Somebody made a comment that writing a blog is like writing an op-ed a day and worth the exercise. For which Ambassador Crawford responds:

“Blogs offer you the chance to write an op-ed a day. So do newspapers. Yet how many op-ed pieces by serving British diplomats have there ever been? None? The point is that under the way our democracy functions British diplomats can't work like that. Nor do they. Anything close to being critical or tendentious or spikey or provocative is likely to annoy either a host government or HQ or both. Just say a diplomat posted a blog entry politely speculating on the wisdom of current Climate Change or Middle East policy. Imagine the scenes in Parliament: "The Secretary of State apparently cannot persuade even his own senior officials of the wisdom of this policy! Why should we take any notice of him?"

True. A unified message is necessary because it has more impact and generates less chaos and migraines. You certainly can’t have different people from the same agency talking from various policy perspectives publicly. I imagine that one or two or more would be dragged into the SFRC hearings to make clarifications or to defend their views. Can’t be done; this won’t work or people would be running around like headless chickens trying to find their heads!

The primary question I supposed is -- what is the function of an official blog? Is it an op-ed generator, a rapid response arm, a community huddle, a shining stake on cyberground, what?. At least the FCO has articulated where its blogging fits in the larger puzzle and has now been evaluated for the third time. DipNote has nothing but this, and if it has been evaluated at all, that report is not in the public sphere.

Part of Ambassador Crawford’s commentary on the FCO blogs is that when things are breaking online or even in the MSM like this one on, "A foul-mouthed anti-Semitic tirade"? or this one, the FCO bloggers and website seems to have little to say about it. A similar criticism for DipNote, this one saying last year: “When the world is blowing up someplace, why does it take days and days for DipNote to weigh in? Where is Condoleeza Rice? Where is the energy, where is any evidence of a major commitment here to something other than a very, very careful, at times self-flattering operation?”

During the Mumbai siege, two Americans escaped and wrote about their experience with the Embassy (actually the Consulate General) in CNN’s user-generated, site, DipNote was nowhere around. I don't think readers would expect DipNote to wade in on the core issues in Mumbai, after all it was an unfolding incident. But it's a blog - you can't expect it to be silent when what is going on is right on its alley! It could have easily posted contact numbers for the task force (it was available elsewhere) and within a reasonable aftermath, could have invited some un-official bloggers who were assigned in Mumbai and were in the thick of things like Diplodocus who posted a few items: We Are Safe, Thanksgiving., It’s Raining in Bombay, The Earth Spins on Its Axis. And Girl in the the Rain who posted Deep Breath excerpted below:

We have been working 12-hour shifts (and sometimes more), running between phone calls or text messages with American citizens who were trapped in the hotels, meetings with the people “upstairs” who wanted to know what was going on, inquiries from families in the States, media calls (which we promptly passed off), and “field” duty at places like hospitals, outside the hotels, the airport, and even the morgue. Things were changing several times per minute - it was nearly impossible to get an accurate picture of things to report to the higher-ups at any given time, because it would all be different by the time you finished saying it.

There were also, of course, some low points. Like when one of our officers was allowed to enter the Oberoi Hotel - he left the hotel shaken, telling us of a horrific scene inside, with bodies in a restaurant where there were still meals on the tables. And, of course, each time we learned of a confirmed death of one of the people who we’d been looking for, or whose families or friends we had been in touch with.

And We’re okay. with the following:

We did our best to stay on top of the situation, and we did whatever we could to help American citizens who were caught up in the attacks or holed up in hotel rooms, (understandably) scared out of their wits. It is tough work emotionally, and I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that we all wholeheartedly wish we could do more for people.

I recognize that DipNote is under new management with some changes recently – but until about last year, it often reads very much like a dry report or a press release, or an extension of the happy-talk magazine. In December somebody posted Vulnerable Minorities: Eradicating Today’s Form of Slavery. The piece was in first person, 11 paragraphs in length. Below is a quick excerpt:

I’ve talked with survivors in Tamil Nadu, an especially poor state in India. Many in bonded labor, some sexually exploited, have rights to freedom under a 32-year-old Indian law. Yet the federal and local political will to rescue them from exploitation does not match the commitment on paper. I have also met with the champion of Uyghur Muslim rights in China, Rebiya Kadeer, who was jailed for speaking truth to power. She and U.S-funded, but independently operated, Radio Free Asia have reported that Uyghur Muslims have been relocated under force, which makes them human trafficking victims. Conveniently, Kadeer says, many of those trafficked are women of child-bearing age to reduce the Uyghur complexion of Xinjiang.

And I thought as I read this post – okay you’ve met all these people and -- what were your thoughts? If I want to read a report on vulnerable minorities like this I would hunt down a report, or read straight news. It almost seems to me as if this was from a cable, tweaked for blog consumption. This kind of material can trick folks into thinking that they’re engaging the blogosphere and spreading USG’s message in this case, on human trafficking, when the writer is really just talking to himself.

Well, the same could be said about me here …tee-hee

In any case, on these official blogs, the root cause of this “dissatisfaction” might be in the fact that the audience is not only domestic but also global, but that within those segments, people also tend to form “cocoons of conversation online.” That's a lot of niches ...

So -- different strokes for different folks?

Related Post: Diplomatic Bloggers: Web 2.0 Door Opens

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