Journal

Twitter and Public Diplomacy: Deputy Assistant Secretary Colleen Graffy (Part I)

Anyone interested in the intersection of public diplomacy and “web 2.0” has probably heard about the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Colleen Graffy’s use of Twitter (a popular social networking and micro-blogging service). During a recent trip to Europe, Graffy Twittered her journey through several countries, mixing personal and professional “tweets”. Some of her more personal comments, as well as her general tone, met with criticism by several reporters and commentators.

I have a few points of my own which I will make in a following post, but I thought a summary of the timeline and major critiques might be useful.

Graffy started Twittering in November, focusing mostly on her overseas travel, which included stops all across Europe. She touched on a number of the meetings and events she was attending on her trip, including meetings with school groups, government officials and others. She got an initial boost of attention when DipNote, the State Department’s official public affairs blog, highlighted her trip and Twitter feed.

Spencer Ackerman was one of the first to comment on her use of Twitter, criticizing her of over-sharing in several tweets relating to a visit to the Blue Lagoon, a spa in Iceland where she ran into the deputy chief of mission.

  • “in Boston now boarding flight to Iceland! forgot gym clothes, forgot bathing suit (possible Blue Lagoon visit). advice: don’t pack in 30 min (link)
  • Small world — ran into DCM [deputy chief of mission] Neil Klopfenstein just before plunge into Blue Lagoon. Bathing suit not my sartorial choice for first meet! Ack! (link)

Her Twitter thread received even wider attention when Al Kamen, the Washington Post’s (typically satirical) political correspondent, mentioned a few of her more frivolous posts, including the two above, in his column The Loop. His column was quickly picked up by a number of Twitter users, many of whom (including myself) defended Graffy’s use of Twitter and suggested that Kamen probably didn’t “get” Twitter.

Matthew Burton then noted in his Twitter feed that Wikipedia defines public diplomacy as starting “from the premise that dialogue, rather than a sales pitch”. Burton further weighted-in with a blog post in which he praised Graffy’s use of Twitter, noting her “personal touch is exactly how she should be using Twitter”. He also criticized commentators for poking fun at Graffy, arguing such ridicule will simply make it less likely public officials will be willing to experiment with social media in the future.

Charles Brown of Diplomatic Follies, while suggesting Graffy’s spontaneity on Twitter was a step forward, criticized the lack of opinion or policy in her tweets. Indeed, he notes Graffy “doesn’t even explain why she made the trip in the first place”. In a similar vein, Karen Nelson questioned whether twittering was an efficient use of Graffy’s time.

Ilan Berman, on the American Foreign Policy Council blog, provided a more historical perspective in his critique, arguing that strategic outreach during the Cold War helped provide “hope to captive audiences behind the Iron Curtain” and Graffy’s “email blasts” fell far short of those efforts. The main thrust of Berman’s argument is “public diplomacy and strategic communication are not about total transparency” but are “…intended to communicate ideas and values to the outside world. When America speaks, the words need to inspire and empower.”

The post sparked a very interesting comment thread, which included a reply from Graffy. While she raised the risk of mixing the personal and professional, Graffy noted that her tweets have “helped personalize the diplomatic role”, making her more accessible to her audience. Through her use of Twitter, she was able to connect with the youth in the locations she was visiting, giving them a chance to get to know her before meeting in person. Many of the following comments were supportive, the majority focusing on the humanizing aspect of the communication medium.

Berman provided the last comment, conceding that the “personal” diplomacy she was engaging in “indeed has a place as an adjunct to official outreach” but was not a “substitute for it”. Indeed, it was not the “marginal” usefulness of Twitter (or other social networks) that Berman had the took significant issue with, but rather the lack of over-arching strategy and clear, coherent messaging.

Graffy followed up her comments with an op-ed in the Washington Post, where she expanded on her point that Twitter allows people to get to know her better as a real person, enhancing the face-to-face meetings she was having on her trip. She noted: “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.'” She closed with the argument that public diplomacy practitioners need to engage in these new mediums since that is where the conversation is moving.

Lastly, Matt Armstrong (from MountainRunner) followed-up with several points. While touching on the importance of personal connections in public diplomacy, he places Graffy’s communication in line with more traditional public diplomacy which has long operated in a dynamic, crowded and very personal environment. What Anderson sees as the more fundamental problem however is not the lack of coordinated action or Graffy’s “over-sharing” but rather that there is “no understanding of the purpose of public diplomacy and equally important no leadership in the field”. The result is that many of the most critical participants in public diplomacy, the Secretary of State, Congress, the American media, academia and others, are not closely involved in the process.

I’ll post my reaction in a day or two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *