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Following @dipnote: Hillary's CauseWired Diplomacy

By Tom Watson on February 15, 2009No Comment

She’s been uncharacteristically quiet since her confirmation as Secretary of State, but the Obama Administration’s other rock star seems poised to change all that with her first big overseas trip to Asia – with the help of a Twitter-fueled blog audience that has increased three-fold since Barack Obama’s inauguration. And while she inherits massive foreign policy challenges from her predecessor, Hillary Clinton also inherits a new media team at State that’s at least a year into remaking America’s digital image on the web.

Started under former Secretary Rice – and emphatically seamless, professional and non-partisan in its transition to Secretary Clinton – the expansion of State’s online operation seems primed for President Obama’s primary international goal: rebuilding the U.S. brand overseas.

At the center of that operation is Dipnote, the official State Department blog and Twitter feed that is updated several times each day, and packed with video, links to news stories from mainstream media, and items by State officials. Oh, and comments. Yep, State allows (moderated) conversation on its blog, in contrast (thus far, we hope) to the broadcast-only nature of the White House’s spiffy-and-sparse new blog.

The Dipnote blog’s been heavy on the Clinton videos for the last two weeks, and you could see the @dipnote followers grow with Hillary fans and media types. But it’s not an overtly political operation, under the guidance of hold-over blogmaster and managing editor Daniel Schaub, but it doesn’t lack personality, either: “Mauritanian Snowshoe Team Leaves Sandy Dunes for Snowy Peaks,” read one post/Tweet this week – and the Twitter bio lists the Twitterer “on duty.”

But the leadership-focused main State portal, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account are just part of a rapidly-expanding Department of State presence online – an expansion that began late in President Bush’s second term, led by former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman, who once debated Egyptian bloggers in Second Life. The new media operation also includes America.gov, the official U.S. diplomacy site, which is administered by the Bureau of International Information Programs and published in seven languages. According to Amy Harder in the National Journal, the site – launched little more than a year ago – “receives about 28 million page views per month.”

Beyond the obvious upside of a strong online presence for the U.S. diplomatic effort, State’s online expansion holds a couple of key benefits for the Department and its new Secretary:

Resources – Clinton’s confirmation hearings made clear she intends to fight for an increase in State’s budget and resources, which were allowed to shrink in comparison to the massive defense and security outlays. The big online program, with a huge audience, clearly leverages existing resources – and can help make a clear case for more spending on diplomacy and rebuilding America’s reputation.

Transparency – The State Department can be a lead player in President Obama’s explicit promise to make the U.S. government more open in its dealings with the public, and in doing so, send a real message internationally about the connection of everyday citizens to American foreign policy.

Turf – The inevitable discussion of foreign policy territory in the new administration shouldn’t discount the Secretary of State’s new media operation, and her direct channel to both an American and international audience online: Hillary Clinton has an online platform at least as large (and more international) than the one she left behind in her campaign for President – and one that gives her a real lever in the omnipresent tensions between the defense and security apparatus (however friendly at the outset of an Administration) and the diplomatic corps.

It will be interesting to see what she does with the online operation in the coming months, but there are signs that Clinton (who watched her former rival dominate the online wars during the 2008 primary campaign) understands that the online lever may be important.

Secretary Clinton opened her Feb. 4th “town hall” meeting with State Department staffers by announcing she was putting out a virtual suggestion box on the department’s intranet to collect ideas on “reforms and improvements” for the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts. She took questions relayed through State’s Office of eDiplomacy blog and through America.gov. And she spoke passionately about the use of social media and Internet technology in response to a question from Ed Gagliardi, the Information Management Officer at U.S. Embassy Mexico City, about the Department’s use of Web 2.0 tools for diplomacy:

“…the United States Government is behind nearly everybody, except in certain discrete areas, in terms of technology. And we are, in my view, wasting time, wasting money, wasting opportunities, because we are not prepared to communicate effectively with what is out there in the business world and the private world. So I care passionately about this, especially since I’ve been deprived of my Blackberry, so – at least during the day, anyway – so, I am, again, soliciting your advice.”

As Secretary Clinton jets off to Asia tomorrow – in a choice of first-trip international territory that seems quite canny and calculated – the diplomatic pouch won’t be her only channel for the daily communique: some of the action will be on Twitter.

[Cross-posted from the excellent techPresident blog]

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