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Unfriend: State Dept’s Social Media Shop Is DC’s “Red-Headed Stepchild”

Every government bureaucracy on the face of the Earth experiences turf wars, morale issues, infighting and red tape. Then there’s the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. Best known as the bureau that blew $630,000 on Facebook “likes,” IIP finds itself at a crossroads, sources tell The Cable, as it prepares to announce a ...


Every government bureaucracy on the face of the Earth experiences turf wars, morale issues, infighting and red tape. Then there’s the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.

Best known as the bureau that blew $630,000 on Facebook “likes,” IIP finds itself at a crossroads, sources tell The Cable, as it prepares to announce a new coordinator next month.

The mission of IIP is to improve the standing of America abroad using videos, websites, social media and a range of other diplomacy tools. In practice, IIP employees often produce and disseminate live-streamed interviews with U.S. diplomats in far flung areas of the world, or generate other public diplomacy content at the request of embassies and consulates. Given the capacity of social networks to influence and connect millions, there’s a grand opportunity for the State Department to use these (largely American-built) networks to repair the country’s tarnished image around the world. But fulfilling that mission has proved difficult. 

IIP’s new leader will attempt to address a scathing Inspector General report from May describing a “pervasive perception of cronyism” at the bureau where “leadership fostered an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty” and where staff “describe the … atmosphere as toxic and leadership’s tolerance of dissenting views as non-existent.” One might assume a massive overhaul is needed, but employees already complain of “reorganization fatigue” from previous attempts to reorganize the bureau.

Foggy Bottom spokespeople vigorously defended the bureau. IIP’s many internal and external critics have a different view. The first among the bureau’s many problems, they say, is the lack of a clear mission. The State Department defines IIP as the “foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau,” but its role amid the U.S. government’s sprawling diplomacy apparatus remains a mystery to many in Washington.

“It’s the redheaded stepchild of public diplomacy,” said a former congressional staffer with knowledge of the bureau. “The head of it isn’t even an assistant secretary. That doesn’t sound like much. But when you’re trying to throw your weight around the State Department, it matters. Why should people take you seriously? You have a shitty budget, you have a crappy product and you don’t even have to be congressionally confirmed.”

The source said its main problem was finding something it actually does well. “It has an ill-defined mandate and no flagship product that anyone outside of Foggy Bottom has ever heard of,” the source said.

Besides helping operate the websites of embassies and consulates around the world, the bureau “provides and supports the places, content, and infrastructure needed for sustained conversations with foreign audiences to build America’s reputation abroad,” according to its website. One small problem: that mission often overlaps with the charters of other government institutions also tasked with boosting America’s reputation abroad: the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs Voice of America and Radio Free Europe; the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, which sponsors a range of exchange programs including the Fulbright scholarship; and the Bureau of Public Affairs, which explains and disseminates U.S. foreign policy. For some employees working within IIP, the overlapping missions causes frustration as efforts to discuss real-world events, U.S. policies or ways of acquiring U.S. visas or immigration papers run afoul of IIP’s limited jurisdiction. “We’re constantly told we can’t explain U.S. policy because that’s for PA [Public Affairs],” said a current IIP employee. The result is the production of light, uncontroversial content, like videos of bald eagles in flight, National Donut Day in the U.S. or youth entreprenuership. “We produce very soft content on things no one would disagree with,” said the employee.

Others pointed to IIP’s transient environment where many appeared to be playing musical chairs. “I can’t tell you how many of my colleagues are either looking for jobs outside of IIP or actively applying for them,” said a current IIP contractor. “The problem is no one wants to hire us at Main State because they don’t respect us.”

While accounts of disgruntled employees can be found at any agency, there’s no question that IIP has lacked long-term leadership. Since 1999, the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which oversees IIP, has been vacant more than 30 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. By comparison, the position of Under Secretary for Political Affairs was only empty for 5 percent of that time. The position has also never been filled by a career diplomat — a fact that prompted 51 retired senior foreign affairs professionals, including Amb. Thomas Pickering, to write a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in May urging him to rectify the situation.

“A career foreign affairs professional, with years of overseas and Washington experience, is more likely to understand the larger world context and how public diplomacy can help achieve America’s policy goals,” read the letter. 

Most recently, the position of under secretary was filled by Tara Sonenshine after her appointment in April 2012. Sonenshine has since left the position, but she still defends the bureau. In particular, she believes the critical report from the Office of the Inspector General was “tough but not completely fair.”

“OK, they spent time acquiring too many followers. They built up the traffic to their site. Is that really such a sin?” she asked in an interview with The Cable. “They moved quickly into social media at a time when Secretary of State Clinton said we should have 21st century statecraft. I don’t know why that’s such a bad thing.” 

Tom Nides, the State Department’s former deputy secretary for management and resources, also defended IIP in wake of the OIG report. “I worry that when people jump on issues like this it forces the State Department to lose its risk-taking ability,” said Nides, who now works for Morgan Stanley. “We have to allow our departments to be innovators and take risks. And if you’re an innovator, some things just aren’t going to work.”

“The bureau does some really innovative and interesting stuff,” Nides told The Cable. “The revolutions you saw in the Middle East were fueled by Twitter and Facebook. It was 21st century communication and we need to make sure we understand that mode of communicating.”

Sonenshine did concede that some reforms should be made to the bureau’s leadership structure. “Congress should make that coordinator position an assistant secretary ,” she said, “because it needs to be able to operate and sit at the table with its peers.”

One of the bureau coordinators most credited with emphasizing technology is Dawn McCall, former president of Discovery Networks International. Her tenure, which began in July 2010 and ended recently, is often noted for its rigid focus on engagement metrics for various IIP programs.

But while many in the bureau agree that technology is key to its success, some feel that the new digital emphasis has been exaggerated. “Everyone constantly says ‘digital’ and ‘connectivity,’ but at the end of the day, I don’t know how mind-blowing it is,” said the contractor. “It’s not innovative to use Facebook. It’s not innovative to stream video. Almost every government in the world has a team dedicated to digital diplomacy.” 

The contractor described much of the day-to-day activities of IIP employees as generating and pushing out daily activity reports that include content engagement analytics with varying degrees of relevance. “I didn’t do public diplomacy today,” she said. “I did internal diplomacy.”

“We put out these reports so it looks like we were productive even though the numbers are often misleading and inflated,” she said, She described instances in which discouraging bounce rate statistics for video streaming events were simply left out of final reports. She also said scores of employees consume themselves with formatting and producing newsletters to embassy officials that often go unread. “It’s very decentralized and all our embassies and consulates are being bombarded with newsletters that overwhelm them.”

Contactors make up a large portion of IIP’s budget. Total IIP funding since fiscal year 2011 is about $71 million with almost $55 million spent on contracting. Their funding is dwarfed by other public diplomacy-driven organizations such as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which had a 2013 budget request of $720 million. If engagement and impact is a goal, some have suggested that IIP should be merged with BBG, which actually has a fighting chance at winning viewers and listeners given its army of news gatherers around the world.

“The BBG tells you the news of the world, PA tells you the news about the State Department,” said the former congressional source. “What does IIP tell you that would compel you to visit their sites?”

Alternatively, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said gains made by IIP in recent years are real and criticisms of the bureau from the OIG report will be looked at and addressed with time. “The bureau has made a significant contribution to the State Department’s digital diplomacy outreach effort, increased the reach of its publications, and expanded the use of video in public diplomacy work,” he said. “The Department takes this valuable feedback seriously and is committed to addressing the recommendations and the concerns that led to the assessment.”

He also disputed the idea that the bureau was looked down upon in Foggy Bottom. “The Secretary believes that IIP Coordinator is an incredibly important position at the Department, and has focused closely on it in his personnel process, and he hopes to soon be able to make public a new leader for the office.”