How Hillary Clinton Democratized Diplomacy One Tweet at a Time


As Hillary Clinton continues to recover from her health scare and prepares to return to work as Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) is readying to succeed her at that position. And of course, questions remain about Clinton's intentions for a possible presidential run in 2016. But instead of peering forward, let us look back at how she has changed public diplomacy at the State Department.

Before Clinton arrived at State, the approach of U.S. public diplomacy was to "sell" the U.S. The goal was more analogous to marketing: to paint the U.S. in a positive light through commercials and other media campaigns. These actions, however, are only one-way: yelling at the television does not constitute a conversation.

So when Clinton arrived, she embraced 21st Century Statecraft: diplomacy through any technological means. Clinton brought on board technological innovators, such as Alec Ross, to change how America communicates with the world. The State Department now has hundreds of social media accounts, from Twitter to Facebook and from YouTube to Google+. Both individuals and agencies within the State Department have specialized accounts, and many operate in important and popular languages around the world. Under Clinton the approach of U.S. public diplomacy went from marketing to engagement. In a study under review at the Journal of Public Relations Research (entitled "A Social Networks Approach to Public Relations on Twitter: Social Mediators and Mediated Public Relations") Himelboim, I., Golan, G.J., Moon, B. and I have found that the State Department successfully uses Twitter to establish two-way symmetrical relationships with their publics.

In other terms, by embracing new technological innovations in the context of a traditional bureaucratic structure, Clinton has democratized diplomacy. Around the world foreign publics can now converse and interact with the State Department on their mobile phone, tablet, or computer in their native language. They only need internet access and a social media account. Have you ever sent an email, Tweet, or complaint to a faceless organization, only to be pleasantly surprised at receiving a real response? Anyone who has knows first-hand the difference between marketing and engagement. Public diplomacy, among other things, is a tool of what I call preventative national security: responding to the grievances of those who feel slighted by America before they become radicalized and violent.

Like any other approach this engagement model of public diplomacy is not perfect, and as such must be used alongside broadcast media approaches to public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy, as well. But Hilary Clinton's embrace of new technology to institutionalize conversations between the State Department and foreign publics around the world will build relationships and help shape America's image abroad for generations to come. Because while a commercial can last only thirty seconds, a relationship can last a lifetime.