@rmack Agrees: Obama’s Outreach to China Should be Social

Jingmi Road, Outbound

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1344 hrs.

Former CNN Beijing bureau-chief turned eChina scholar Rebecca MacKinnon published an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on the Huffington Post earlier this week, echoing my essay on Obama, China, and Public Diplomacy published in AdAgeChina last November (which I revised and posted here).

Longtime readers of this blog know that while Ms. MacKinnon and I frequently agree on principle, we usually disagree on our approaches to addressing some of China’s more vexing issues, in particular on the matter of Internet censorship.

But on this issue we agree: the new US administration needs to extend its diplomatic outreach to China beyond the nation’s leadership, its foreign affairs apparatus, and elites by reaching out to the Chinese people, and social media is a way to do it.

Beyond the VOA

I recently had an opportunity to listen to a panel of distinguished speakers at George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs bemoan the decline of the foreign correspondent in news today. The keynote speaker was D. Jeffrey Hirschberg of the Broadcast Board of Governors (the U.S. government agency responsible for Voice of America and all government-funded non-military broadcasting.)

While the BBG’s component broadcasters have been trying to figure out how to use social media tools in its outreach, they have clearly been struggling for effectiveness. I realized halfway through the talk that their efforts to date were either halfhearted (which I think unlikely) or that the shift in thinking required to capture the potential of new media was simply too large for journalist-bureaucrats steeped in an old-media tradition. In fact, I was struck by the similarities between the words and frustrations of the government media leaders and those of their commercial counterparts.

So as much as it might seem to make sense on paper to leave the government’s international social media outreach to the VOA or Radio Free Asia, doing so misses the point. Turning a conversation over to an agency that is seen as the de-facto propaganda arm of the government undermines their credibility and thus their ability to conduct conversations, but more important it limits the scope and effectiveness of the online public diplomacy effort.

Socialize the Aparatchiks!

EVERY office and agency of the federal government needs to be using these tools, and for international outreach that means every section of the State, Commerce, and Defense departments, plus dozens of independent agencies like the BBG. If public diplomacy is to be conducted over social media, we need hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of participants on both sides.

In each of those offices, the best approach is to hand responsibility over to people who genuinely understand how to use those tools, and give them the organizational authority to make them effective.

Ten days into the new administration, the White House itself is already setting an example. Not only have they brought in a new, sharp, and young site administrator and completely overhauled the site, they’re also got a Twitter feed, and there is clearly more in the works. We do not as yet have a Blogger-in-Chief per se, but given his agenda, I think we can cut POTUS a little slack on that one.

That said, the site is as yet only available in English (the Spanish language site is a stub, really) and as such is not yet a tool for global outreach.

So the goal must not only be to make the government more accessible to the people, but to make the US government more accessible to the peoples of the world.

And we need to be doing this soon. Because if recent revelations that China is investing US$7 billion in an effort to expand and enhance its global media presence indicate anything, it is that influencing the people of the world – and America – is certainly on Beijing’s mind. Who will win the global contest for hearts and minds depends on more than just media, but America cannot assume it will win that contest without an effort.

Al-Jazeera should be enough to prove that.

A Final Thought

Over the last few days, there have been several comments online remarking how strange it is that Ms. MacKinnon is apparently not yet tenured at the University of Hong Kong, where she is on the faculty of the Journalism and Media Studies Center . Those voices, while well meaning, should keep in mind that at least in the United States, Ms. MacKinnon would normally need 5-6 years as an assistant professor before being able to apply for a tenured position. I would imagine standards are not much different in Hong Kong, and Ms. MacKinnonhas only been at HKU for two.

Nonetheless, the point is well-taken. Again, I disagree with Ms. MacKinnon’s opinions and recommendations far more often than I agree with them, but she plays in essential role in the debate about media in China. While university tenure might be a challenge for someone who has much practical experience but no degrees beyond a B.A., it would reflect badly on the quality of education in Hong Kong and on the independence of the SAR if she were to be denied tenure solely or primarily because her research and public positions cause discomfort in Zhongnanhai.