Social Media: Plenty of talking, not much listening

Thursday, July 25th 2013

I can’t say that I was very surprised by the news that the State Department spent $630,000 to boost traffic to four of its International Information Programs (IIP) Facebook pages.

Was it a waste of money at a time of fiscal austerity? Absolutely. Did it result in a bump in traffic? At least temporarily, yes. Will IIP be able to hang on to those followers and advance its mission to “build America’s reputation abroad”? Probably not.

The reason it won’t is because of what social media has become: A place where a lot of people (and institutions) are talking, but very few are listening.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised at what State did. For too many institutions these days, being seen as a player online is more a fashion than a well thought-out strategy.

I’ve been involved with the Internet and what’s now called social media for a number of years, and it’s pretty clear at this point that the low barrier to participation – all you really need is a cellphone – has resulted in an environment with a discouragingly low signal-to-noise ratio.

Take Facebook, for example. No one wants to be friend-less on Facebook, but once you acquire a certain number of “friends” – even if they’re people you actually know (which is not necessarily a requirement for many users) – your Facebook home page is soon transformed into an endless stream of random observations and rants and links to cat videos from people you may rarely if ever talk to. Who has the time to read it all?

Then there’s Twitter. When I opened a Twitter account a few years ago, I was glad when I got my first followers. But then I started getting followers whose interests seemed totally unrelated to my messages. When I looked at the thousands of followers that many of them had – and then noticed that they also had an almost equal number of people that they purportedly followed – I realized that for some people, Twitter had become a quid pro quo game: I’ll follow you if you follow me. Even at a limit of only 140 characters a Tweet, there’s no way to keep up with the updates of even a few dozen active Twitter accounts, much less the thousands of accounts that some of these people claimed to “follow”.

All this is not to say that Twitter and Facebook can’t be useful. As an individual, if you choose your “friends” (and those you “follow”) carefully, you can create a manageable amount of content that can be interesting to you.

Similarly, for an institution devoted to public diplomacy like the State Department, there are ways to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build relationships with the public – and advance your mission – without having to buy them. The key is to provide content that the public can’t get anywhere else, because you are the best and most authoritative source.

So, how is IIP doing on that front?

I Googled “Facebook, State, IIP” and the first Facebook page that came up was Global Conversations: Our Planet.

As I scrolled down the page, I saw colorful photos of Rio de Janeiro (with a caption that asked: “Before supertankers and yachts occupied the harbor, what did it once used to be?”); the Aurora Borealis; Victoria Falls in southern Africa (“Victoria Falls is also called "Mosi-oa-Tunya" in the Tokaleya dialect of Tonga. Do you know what this phrase means?”); Mount Everest in Nepal; bees; and the Great Barrier Reef.

Farther down I finally saw some references to the United States.

If you’re a member of the international audience who goes to the trouble of looking up what the American State Department has to say on Facebook, is this what you’re looking for? Will you make it a regular habit to visit this site?

And most importantly: Will this “build America’s reputation abroad”?  

2 people have commented on this article so far

David S. Jackson

David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets. authors name for more info

Author: David S Jackson

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Development of PD

Dear Sir ,

Could you make judgments on the next proposal:

To promote international understanding.

The analysis of the news and discussion programs on the Russian television, the discussions on the Internet shows the disappointingly low level of the knowledge of the history and the modern life in the U.S. Significantly, this applies to both the ordinary citizens and the intellectuals.

In the society dominate the mistrust, and, frequently, the dislike for the so-called "West" and especially the United States. And it is not explained only by the echoes of the Cold War - these views are shared by many citizens of the young and middle-aged, educated and formed after the Cold War. This is not surprising - referred populations form such attitudes in dealing with the older generation which emerged in an era when the West (USA) was the synonym of the enemy.

The most accessible media, and, above all, public television stations, affecting most the mass audience, are oriented at best wary, distrustful attitude to Western countries. In the circumstances when the most part of the population do not speak foreign languages, they did not understand the foreign-language TV channels, even when they available. Broadcast, even in the Internet version, in contrast to the Soviet and the early post-Soviet period, now is not so popular.

For much of the population an attractive source of the information as previously could be the well illustrated journals , telling about of interesting for the mass topics. These were previously the such magazines as "America", "England" and similar.

Nowadays, a wide spread of the Internet becomes the primary source of the information for a fairly general population. Analysis of the various sites , the forums and the discussion sites on the Internet shows a lack of the specialized sites, where could be provided systematic information on the history and the today life in the U.S.

This site may have the following characteristics:

For each topic, the information should be presented in 3 versions:

1 – The summary for the ordinary citizens ("Housewives", "dummies")

2 – The detailed information for the "advanced" intellectuals

3 - For the professionals - with many citations of the professionals and links to the sources

Such the site must have:

1.Inquire office - where the visitors could request with their question for the answer. From the questions of the visitors formed the Frequently Asked Questions , which is constantly updated with the received new questions and, most importantly - updated with the new information on previously questions.

2.Discussion subsite - a forum where the visitors could hold discussions among themselves and with the participation of the representatives from site staff. This kind of the discussion will give an excellent material for renovation and updating of the site, as well as to attract to him a wider audience.

3.Useful links on the site.

4.Source for English language learners - English versions of articles from the site, which can be used by teachers as the topics of some sort educational material. A great addition would be the audio recordings of articles from the site. Here is to use the audio or video recordings of political leaders and the lectures of the scientists and the specialists on site.

Very attractive, especially for the youth audience of the site , could be holding the various competitions and the quizzes on the theme of the site. Prizes can be very different - from an audio-recording of the artists, the laptops (notebooks, tablets) and to the travel as a tourist or for the training courses in the U.S.

Such the structure of the site with the set of information, focused on the very wide range of the users, both in the terms of their age and the education level and the occupation, will bring it to the massive interest and to ensure that the needs of these communities in the credible, relevant and accessible information.

The success of this site may be provided only in one case - in its creation and operation the "first fiddle" must play the people living in the midst of the audience on which is oriented the site. They know exactly the level of the knowledge and the interests of the site audience, those questions and issues that concern them, the completeness and the quality of coverage in local media with these issues. They know the issues discussed in the everyday life and on the forums, the blogs and the websites of the country of residence. They are keenly aware - how the language should be presented the contents of the site, answers to frequently asked questions in the discussions.

This is very important to bring the information to the audience of the site. Such the staff can quickly track the lighting information in the media that are available in this country, to evaluate the completeness and the quality and to recommend to supplement or correct the information on the website for more complete and prompt coverage of the issue.

Particularly important, such an analysis for the transmission to the socio-political issues of the Russian television, accessible and popular in the former Soviet Union. Such the transfers reflect the level of the awareness of the participants (and, to some extent, the population) and forms the viewer. This is a good material for the correction of the site because there is not only open up new nuances previously posted on the website material, but also poses new questions, and here-and theme site.

Sincerely, Oleg Chernetskiy

29 July 2013

Good perspective on audience expectations

Thank you for your comments, Mr. Chernetskiy. Although you have offered some thoughtful suggestions for ways to improve the U.S. State department's website, you have also made a good case for the value of organizations such as the Voice of America, which provides not only objective and unbiased information about the United States, but also U.S. and world news reports to audiences around the world in their own languages. In Russia, of course, the information is in the Russian language, and it is accessible on the Internet. (In the past, VOA also broadcast on television and radio in Russia, but those broadcasts have unfortunately been forced off the air because of actions by the Russian government.)

I agree with your suggestion about hosting an online discussion forum. VOA's internet sites usually offer ways for people to ask questions and engage in discussions. They also offer links to websites that can provide additional information about the United States, its policies, and other areas of interest, including tourism. The State department's website would also be a natural place for people to look for this information.

A good website dedicated to public diplomacy outreach has to do more than just offer information. It also should offer opportunities for visitors to the site to interact, which means assigning staff to monitor the site, respond to questions, and engage with audiences. As you correctly point out, on-scene diplomats should have the best understanding of their audience's interests.

Although very few organizations have the luxury of providing a multi-layered website aimed at appealing specifically to all of the targeted audiences ("professionals", "advanced intellectuals", and "ordinary citizens") you have described, I appreciate your perspective on what audiences would like to see.

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