SEOUL (June 22, 2012) — The U.S. State Department encourages its ambassadors and embassies to embrace social media as an avenue towards unfettered access to local populations and a global audience, diplomat Victoria Esser said Friday at the East-West Center’s 2012 International Media Conference in Seoul.
She said the State Department uses social media with three goals: to understand people and events more clearly; to share real-time information; and to engage people as a way of building relationships.
Esser, deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy, said the State Department already does a good job of talking and listening through social media. When the U.S. Embassy in Damascus closed, Esser said, Ambassador Robert Ford still wanted to reach the Syrian people directly. Ford found a way through Facebook and Twitter.
“He’s used these to post declassified satellite images taken by U.S. military cameras to depict the ongoing battles between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al Assad’s military forces,” she said.
Esser said the State Department is also using social media to reach areas where State Department officials cannot go, such as Iran.
“We did our first google+ hangout for the department, and we did it in Persian,” she said. “We invited Persian-speaking journalists to participate in the hangout and asked them to reach out to their social-media followers to solicit questions. The live element enabled dialogue, and hanging out with the journalists enabled us to tap into their networks, so we were reaching people who may not have been following the State Department.”
Esser said the hangout enabled them to reach more than 7 million people. But, she stressed, social media alone is not enough. Twitter and Facebook may enable social change, but people are the ultimate drivers.
“What happens on Twitter shouldn’t stay on Twitter,” Esser said. “That continuum of communication from the virtual world to the real world builds strong bridges and enhances our standing with people from other countries.”
Esser also said each country demands different approaches to social media.
“It’s not just slapping up a Facebook page and calling it a day. Covering different countries requires a tailored, unique response to each situation,” she said. “We have almost 300 diplomatic posts around the world. … It’s a lot of ground to cover.”
— Reporting by Adam Aton, Missouri School of Journalism