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The Obama-Clinton One-Two Tech-Powered Public Diplomacy Punch

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, July 16 2009

If you spent much time reading the commentary around Hillary Clinton's Council on Foreign Relations speech yesterday, you just couldn't get away from the idea that this marked Clinton's attempt to plant her own flag as our chief diplomat. That while, sure, her mission is driven by the President and the White House, but this was her coming out as a leader-in-full, with a vision all her own of how she'll achieve the State Department's goals on the world stage. True? Yeah, perhaps.

But talk to people in the know about the day-to-day workings of both the State Department and White House, and what comes across is another dynamic, one less contentious but more interesting in many ways. That's how closely forward-looking folks in both institutions are working together to use technology in support of the administration's diplomatic aims. Of course, let's not be silly. This isn't the first time a State Department has supported a president. It's part of the job description. But technology seems to be greasing the wheels on that relationship. One or two runs below Clinton, there's tech-driven symbiosis afoot. Take Obama's speech last week in Accra, Ghana. It's a great example of how, using new media, two DC powerhouses are feeding off one another's efforts. A taste of what we're talking about here:

  • To increase the odds that Obama's address to the Ghanaian parliament would be heard beyond Ghana's borders, interpreters at State translated the half-hour speech into Arabic, French, Farsi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, and Zulu. The translated texts were posted online far and wide, on both diplomatic sites like America.gov and presidential websites, including WhiteHouse.gov. (It's also worth noting that it was the State Department that the White House turned to when it wanted to tweet out in Farsi a Twitter link to to Obama's remarks on the post-election uprising in Iran.)
  • State Department outposts around the world used social media and other techniques to get the speech out to citizens in the countries in which they're stationed, and pull them into engagement. The U.S. Mission in South Africa, to name just one example, used their 2,000-fan Facebook group to pull out and promote snippets of the Ghana address, and started conversations with South Africans about the themes of Obama's remarks. The mission also tweeted thoughts on Twitter at @usembpretoria. Offline, some U.S. embassies in Africa
    hosted what amounted to MeetUps around the speech; others gave "micro-grants" to local theaters show the Obama speech so that locals could watch the address for free.
  • The State Department's global chat network Co.Nx -- now with a Facebook component -- hosted a live webchat during the speech that attracted thousands of participants.
  • Audio of the speech was shipped out to local radio stations in Africa and elsewhere, to reach folks without access to the Internet or televisions.
  • An SMS program invited comments on the President's speech, and about 16,000 messages came in through it. WhiteHouse.gov hosted a waterfall map displayed the text messages against a backdrop of the African continent, and Obama later responded to a handful of the questions via video. A text messaging program through which the White House texted out highlights of the speech reached more than 12,000 people in more than 80 countries.