A new kind of diplomacy takes root at State Department

Moira Whelan is the deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy in the U.S. State Department
Moira Whelan is the deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy in the U.S. State Department Photo provided

The U.S. State Department is the same body that it has always been: handling relations between nations, maintaining peace and balancing tense situations around the globe.

But one office is doing that in a new way.

Moira Whelan is the deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy.

It’s a long title, to be sure. A shorter alternative might be Secretary of Tweet.

Her office in the Bureau of Public Affairs handles the department’s social media presence. She spoke Monday about that digital footprint to former ambassador Dennis Jett’s international affairs students at the Lewis Katz Building.

“It’s digital diplomacy,” she told the Centre Daily Times in an interview.

“What we’ve seen it evolve to, what we’ve seen it become, is a new kind of connection that is already changing the landscape of what we do,” Whelan said.

She says the State Department has always been a little different from the foreign service ministries of other countries. It doesn’t exist only behind the walls of its embassies; it serves Americans overseas and extends hands to foreign dignitaries.

“It’s a hallmark of U.S. diplomacy to engage the people,” Whelan said. Social media allows that to happen in an instant.

Facebook, Instagram and other social media are changing the way the U.S. engages foreign nationals, reaching out in a way that is both global and personal. With more than a million Twitter followers and 800,000 Facebook likes just on the main accounts, and even more for Secretary John Kerry and the individual U.S. embassies, the department can speak to people on a variety of topics in a keystroke. Topics on Monday included Ebola, climate change, and the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha.

Sometimes the immediacy lets the U.S. speak to a topic in the moment. Whelan points to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, where millions protested the abduction of girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. It also shows how social media resists being pushed where it doesn’t want to go.

“The most successful campaigns are organic,” she said. “People can feel when it’s real.”

That is also what is horrible about it. The reality of the bloodshed and terror behind the Islamic State’s social media campaign has been clear.

The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is “overt” about its presence when addressing violent groups, Whelan said. There is no pretext of being something it isn’t.

With the Islamic State videos, like the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the department relies on relationships with the social media platforms, and a reliance upon them to enforce their own terms of service.

“It’s a challenge,” Whelan said. On one hand, the evolving nature of the new communications allows for an unprecedented real-time display of democracy in action. On the other, it would be nice to stop some things in their tracks.

It’s also something that allows a very personal kind of communication from Kerry, the first sitting secretary of state to have a Twitter account. Whelan said the former senator embraced the idea of social media from the moment he took the reins from Hillary Clinton.

“He came in with an interest. He wanted the American people to come on a journey with him,” she said.

Does Kerry tap in all 140 characters himself with each tweet? Not necessarily, but the messages and the voice are his, Whelan said.

Jett’s students, mostly millennials, think of the many faces of social media as being their form of expression. Although Whelan said the platforms bring together people of all ages and backgrounds, it is undeniable that it makes younger people feel more involvement and ownership in the process.

“There is definitely more engagement by young people, drawing in larger numbers,” she said. “Young people don’t want to sit back and be taught. They see themselves having input. ...With social media, you can see a thunderclap happen.”