Digital Diplomacy in Transition / Moira Whelan

Moira Whelan  / BlueDot Strategies. Former Digital DAS @statedept

Decades ago, a transfer of power in the United States meant that on January 20, embassies around the world would take down the portraits of the President and Vice President, and eagerly await the arrival of the new portraits. The faces of American leadership were important tools of public diplomacy but could take weeks or months to arrive. Even though that portrait session is still a Day One priority for a new American President, now the changing faces of American leadership happen in an instant through digital tools. Because the adoption of digital tools are still relatively new—and in the the United States have grown pervasive in government over the past 8 years–this digital transition is massive and relatively new. Making it a reality took months of planning and hard work.

In the United States, the transfer of power form one President to the next takes place on a stage for the world to see at an appointed time and hour every 4 years. This is unique to the American system and the hours of pomp and circumstance are planned down to the minute.

For digital leaders throughout government, the most important moment is 12:01pm. It is at that moment that the digital transition must take place because a new President is officially in power. Platforms, people and message change in a moment, often with many key questions still unanswered as the new team is built.

That means careful planning, split second action, and big decisions in the flurry of a shift in power.

First, the platforms must change. By US law, all website material must be archived as part of the formal record of the United States. That means that every government website–the hundreds that exist–must get a facelift and be scrubbed of policies and people no longer in power. That can mean a full scale replacement, or a case-by-case shift. In addition, social media platforms must change hands: out with pictures of the old boss, in with the new. Facebook banners and Twitter handles need to change.

Second, the people change. Personal accounts are assessed: Who owns the twitter handle, the diplomat or the government? Each one is reviewed on a case by case basis for the amount of government time and effort that went into maintaining the account. For instance, @johnkerry will keep his account while the former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is changing her handle from @ambassadorpower to @samanthajpower. Next up for the new team and the digital staff: who will take the new accounts? Is the boss tweeting? Is someone helping? Who has the passwords?

Finally, the message needs to be decided. At the State Department, the Daily Press Briefing is the signature event of the day. It’s livestreamed and shared on social platforms. It is the primary way the State Department communicates its message to the world. In the first week of the Trump Administration, there will be no briefing. This is because the senior leaders who decide policy simply aren’t in place and no spokesperson has been named. It takes some time to get the message together, and as a result, the amount of content will diminish that can populate blogs and social media feeds.

The good news is that the breadth of the diplomatic mission provides a new story every day. Climate change, empowerment of women and girls, and other topics that may seem political to the American public are baked into the structure and mission of American diplomacy. Traditional programs like teaching English, exchange programs, and partnerships on economics and military are all stories that need to be told.

It will take some time for the new team to realize the power of the tools they have. The ability to speak directly to people is a practice President Trump knows well, but the nuance of foreign policy is often a challenge in 140 characters. They’ll learn the challenges of translation. They will find out quickly that what works in certain segments of America works against you in the world. They’ll learn that partnership is where we find strength. Digital tools can help you win, but they must be used properly to help you govern. The best thing President Trump can do is trust in the digital teams that made this digital transition a reality.

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