Clearing My Throat, ahem, I Meant My Keyboard…

Long before the Internet social networking was a diplomatic tool. The words “diplomatic” and “reception” go naturally together. So naturally that diplomats are negatively stereotyped as “cookie pushers” (i.e. spending all their time at receptions serving appetizers). But, no doubt about it, a core element of diplomacy is networking socially and professionally … and communicating.

And whereas in the past a diplomat might be expected to communicate with a fairly small circle among the governing elite, now increasingly we reach out to the general public, to help them understand America, its people and its policies.

The Foreign Affairs Manual provides specific guidance to diplomats about speaking in public advising that prepared remarks should be cleared in advance, but that

“In informal presentations, professional meetings, conferences, and panel discussions where, because of the nature of the public appearance, no prepared script or outline will be available for review, the employee is
responsible for ensuring that his or her remarks involve no violation of security, are consistent with U.S. foreign policy, and will not adversely affect U.S. foreign relations or the foreign affairs mission of the United States.”

After all, the nature of being actively engaged in a discussion and speaking as a professional means understanding how to present yourself professionally in any setting. Diplomats are offered training in public speaking and visit a wide range of fora from high schools to commemorative events to television interviews as part of outreach.

Now, in the Internet age, these conversations are taking place electronically. Blogs are enabling diplomats to speak in their own voice to dispersed publics and to respond to questions from around the world. Yet, while the nature of the conversation is similar, our approach is different. The Foreign Affairs Manual also has guidance about participation in “blogs and wikis” stating that

“Any posting to a wiki or blog that contains information “of official concern” to the Department must be cleared through PA (for domestic employees) or Chief of Mission (for employees serving abroad), unless being referenced from existing publicly available information. No employee shall accept compensation from any source other than
the United States Government for writing that relates to the employee’s official duties.”

As required, all the above is being referenced from existing publicly available information (hence the hyperlinks), but note the difference. While both are similar informal participatory fora, written participation is treated differently than oral participation.

As we’ve moved from pushing cookies to concerns about the persistence of cookies, I’m curious how other agencies/organizations handle this distinction — or even recognize that there is a distinction to be made.

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The agency I work for isn’t really delving into the blogosphere yet — they are just getting onboard with having decent webpages and documents available online. But your blog struck a chord with me. The early years of my career were spent as an interpretive ranger — the friendly ranger who explains the natural world (and occasionally agency policy) to the public. I was called upon to explain policies that I didnt’ always agree with personally. And often enough, someone would ask me for my personal opinion.

It’s tricky business stating your own opinion in uniform or when in an official role. Generally, I’d avoid it at all costs. But now and then I could judge whether or not it was ok, and I always made it clear that it was MY opinion, not the agency’s. But your post made me think: how would I do this now, in the online world? Much trickier. Thankfully, I’ll probably never be faced with that — as I don’t see blogs coming to my official world any time soon.

Good post!