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New Media Tools and Public Diplomacy

Interviewee: Elliot Schrage, VP of Global Communications, Marketing, and Public Policy, Facebook
Interviewer: Lee Hudson Teslik, Associate Editor, CFR.org
May 11, 2009

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Just as advertisers have experimented in their uses of new media and social networking, so too have governments. The U.S. State Department now posts on Twitter, has a Facebook account, and has launched a social networking site on its own web server. Experts remain divided on the extent to which these tools will prove a useful means of public diplomacy. Elliott Schrage, Facebook's vice president of global communications, discusses in this interview how governments should think about new media. Schrage places an emphasis on authenticity, saying the medium provides a unique platform for users to reject what they deem to be spin.

For advertisers, one of the big hopes for Facebook is that it will allow them to target their ads more effectively, and maybe reach people who would be interested in their product but who didn't necessarily know about it. Is it reasonable for governments to be thinking in these same terms? If we're looking at public diplomacy efforts, how should governments structure the way they are thinking about Facebook and other sites like it?

It's much too narrow to view this through the prism of advertising. This is really about communications and outreach. So the question is, how do you build an audience? How do you establish a community of interests? That's as true for the maker of laundry detergent as it is for someone who has a stimulus package for economic growth.

The question is: How do you create a community, and how do you build and nurture a community? To some extent, Facebook and the tools associated with it are incredibly valuable, perhaps even more valuable for people who have clear messages or clear issues that they want to address. Sure, advertising is one mechanism, but really what it's about is communicating a message, finding a community, and building that community, engaging that community. So, do I see Facebook as being an incredibly valuable tool for public diplomacy? Absolutely.

Some of the most interesting uses of Facebook have been for the purpose of social action, which is essentially political action, whether it's an extraordinary rallying of support by the Colombian community around the world to protest the terrorist activities of FARC--the Colombian militants--or whether it's students protesting bank fees and bank charges in Great Britain, or whether it's the Obama presidential campaign generating almost six million supporters on Facebook as a means of communicating his policies, his positions, and his campaign activities.

Can you talk a bit about your market saturation, both in developed markets and in emerging markets? I know Facebook is trying to internationalize.

I don't think the relevant word is saturation, I think it's penetration. Frankly speaking, some of our greater successes are in countries where the means of distributing information have not been easy or without friction. So, for example, in Colombia we have remarkable market penetration. In Indonesia we have among our fastest-growing market share. Chile, I believe we have close to 50 percent of the online population now on Facebook. In Europe we're doing extremely well. And in the Middle East we've achieved very interesting degrees of penetration, and in fact just recently announced that we are launching right-to-left languages in addition to left-to-right languages.

Can you attach numbers to some of this?

We don't disclose the penetration numbers, generally speaking, in our emerging markets. The aggregate data by third-party sources suggests that we're the largest social networking site in the world. Our growth is worldwide, and we have, at last count, more than 70 percent of our users outside the United States.

Backing away from Facebook specifically, what businesses or markets are going to be most dramatically changed by shifts in communications?

The most dramatic changes will come in the markets where communication has been challenging, in the markets where sharing and connection have been most difficult. So, certainly that's a mix. In certain cases it's technological or economic. Whether it's in Italy or Indonesia, it's just hard to get information shared easily around the marketplace. In other countries, the governments have been presenting obstacles to sharing and information, and they're finding, in China and elsewhere, that business success requires the free flow of information, or a more free flow of information. And in those markets, companies that are helping to promote connection and sharing are likely over time, over the long term, to achieve great results.

The State Department is now Twittering. From an outreach perspective, it seems like there's a problem, or at least a limitation, for governments wanting to use these sorts of social networking technologies, because the people signing up for their feeds or their fan pages are going to be the people who want to be hearing that government's message anyway.

The question is, what are the public diplomacy messages? If the messages are "we care about the rights of women," and there are actions being taken either in a particular country or around the world, there are people who care about that who will want to learn that information. And if that information feeds into their stream, or their "news feed," that information will be shared with their friends. And some of their friends will find that information interesting and they'll want to sign up. The viral nature of communication through Facebook is, if anything, enhanced by thoughtful public diplomacy--if it's thoughtful and if it really connects with an audience.

The challenge is, how do we move the dialogue away from a government-to-government dialogue, and more toward engaging citizens on the ground. I don't think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you're going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn't, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.

How are social networking sites changing the way that people think about who their friends are, what companies they're interacting with, or what government they're interacting with?

I'd say Facebook and sites like it do three things that are really important. First, we create an opportunity for people to see the world through the wisdom of their friends. The information they get is culled not by some distant, remote editor, but by the editing skills, or by the opinions and ideas, of their friends. Point number two is, Facebook and sites like it create a real premium on authenticity. Who are you, and how do you express who you are in a way that I can understand it? So it's not just your identity, but it's also your opinions, your values, your ideas. And third, they create a whole new level of accountability, because I get to see what you care about, what you're thinking about, and it's not just static, but you see it over time. Those are the three ways that I see social networks fundamentally transforming interpersonal relationships, and frankly, organizational relationships.

I assume that from a public diplomacy standpoint, the premium on authenticity means that you can't really just be out there posting stuff on Facebook that seems like straightforward spin.

Exactly. That's exactly right. In all seriousness, you're asking the right questions, and the interesting thing is that the State Department in this country and the foreign offices around the world are asking the exact same questions. And we're about to see an explosion, truly, an explosion of creative uses. Just like this last election was really--again it's presumptuous to call it the Facebook election--but it was really an Internet election in many, many ways, whether it's YouTube or Facebook or Google. You're going to see the same tools and techniques that transformed the political process in the elections in the United States over the past year, transform diplomatic relationships in the way our country and other countries speak with citizens around the world.

When governments are asking you those questions, how do you advise them, practically, about how they should be using Facebook?

You've already figured into them, through your questions. It's not as if the U.S. government or the British government is getting a message or needs to do things that are different from [what] a big company [needs to do]. Number one, be authentic. Number two, build your community based on real relationships. Number three, hold yourselves accountable, because your audiences and communities will as well.

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