- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Ostensibly web-savvy State Department employees spent $630,000 to earn more Facebook "likes," in an effort that struggled to reach its target audience, according to a searing Inspector General’s report from May.
Between 2011 and March 2013, the department’s Bureau of the International Information Programs, tried to boost the seeming popularity of the department’s Facebook properties by advertising and page improvements. But the results weren’t so good, leaving the Inspector General with no choice but to send a frank message to the bureau’s Facebook gurus: You’re doing it wrong.
"Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as ‘buying fans’ who may have once clicked on an ad or ‘liked’ a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further," reads the Inspector General report.
Ultimately, the spending was successful in artificially increasing apparent popularity of the bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million. But the IG said the bureau’s target audience is older, more influential individuals; not the kind of people who spend hours online liking government Facebook pages, in other words. "What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders?" asks the IG report. It also didn’t help that in 2012 Facebook tweaked the mechanics of its News Feed, making static fan pages less prominent in users’ feeds. (Last year, a number of news organizations also suffered similar engagement issues from such tweaks)
The IG report stings — especially because the Bureau of International Information and Programs is supposed to be Foggy Bottom’s epicenter of online savvy. The bureau includes groovy-sounding divisions such as the Office of Innovative Engagement, which evangelizes on the "importance of using online engagement to drive offline, person-to-person activities and events." The bureau’s stated mission is to be Foggy Bottom’s "foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau" and supports its "growing social media community that numbers over 22 million followers."
Easier said than done. According to the report, first flagged by the Diplopundit, overlap and coordination issues trouble the various bureau’s 150 social media accounts. The report also mentions a "pervasive perception of cronyism" exacerbating its already "serious morale problem."
Some of the issues are rather tedious, like whether embassy staffers should go to the Office of Web Engagement or the Office of Innovative Engagement for advice on social media. A section of the report is devoted to telling employees, hey, the "Office of Innovative Engagement is the proper place for this function."
Then there’s the issue of "overlapping" Farsi outreach efforts. Apparently, both IIP and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affiars have Persian-language Facebook and Twitter accounts. "It is not efficient for the Department to have competing Persian-language Facebook and Twitter sites," reads the report. It suggests NEA take the lead given its closeness to actual "policymakers."
Other recommendations include boilerplate McKinsey-esque recommendations like consolidating weekly staff meetings and formalizing a process for "sharing research results." Total IIP funding since fiscal year 2011 is more than $71 million with almost $55 million spent on contracting. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. Perhaps we’ll post one to their Facebook page.