Is it really possible to explain in 140 characters or less the policies of an institution with 19,000 employees, a $27-billion budget, and 250 locations worldwide? Sure, says Victoria Esser ’94, the first-ever deputy assistant secretary of public affairs for digital strategy for the U.S. Department of State.
Since September Esser has been the point person for making sure tweeting ambassadors stay on message, YouTubing diplomats are relevant, and Facebook updates by envoys help advance the goals of the U.S. government. Aside from a similar position at the White House, hers is the only one in the U.S. government (as far as she knows). “It’s a challenge and a privilege,” she said. “I get excited to wake up every day and work at the center of our foreign policy issues.”
Esser is charged with creating and managing digital strategy for the State Department. That includes overseeing the department’s official social media platforms, broadcast operations, and website. It’s an outgrowth, she says, of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed “21st-century statecraft.”
“It’s a fancy way of saying that we’re using technology and networks and innovation to advance U.S. interests around the world,” Esser said. “Technology enables citizens around the world to have a direct and real-time voice in the policy conversation—with one another and with their government.”
Case in point: a series of photographs of Clinton featuring witty captions on the microblogging site Tumblr went viral earlier this year. (One shows Mitt Romney purporting to write Clinton “Any Advice?” Clinton responds: “Drink.”) The photos, called Texts From Hillary Clinton (at textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com), got so popular, including with Clinton, that the two men responsible for them got an invitation for an in-person chat and photo op with the secretary of state.
“That seems to me to be a fascinating illustration of the convergence of social media and public diplomacy, though I realize it wasn’t exactly the result of some policy decision by our office,” Esser said. “To me the blog showed how the technology enables the sharing of ideas across personalities and geographies.”
Esser came to the position last year after working in public relations and strategic communications. She was a managing director for the Glover Park Group—a major public affairs company in Washington, D.C.—and before that was vice president of Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery, a strategic communications company. A native of Hingham, Mass., she also includes a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts on her curriculum vitae.
Esser travels outside the country about a quarter of her working time, but she spends most of her time in Washington, D.C., working with a 45-member team crafting strategy for digital policymaking. She uses an app called TweetDeck to monitor postings and updates on Twitter and Facebook. She is not, however, one to spend her waking hours head down, staring at an iPhone, oblivious to the world around her. To excel in this position, she said, “You need to be able to synthesize lots of complicated information at the intersection of policy and press and digital media. You need to understand the media environment and to understand the issues and the landscape of the world and put that together in a package.”
Since this is her first experience working in government, Esser says she did face a learning curve, particularly in dealing with the bureaucracy of the State Department and the federal government in general. And it’s taken time to get up to speed on the sheer breadth of policy issues that the State Department is constantly grappling with at near warp speed across 40 time zones. On Twitter alone, she said, there are 196 department-affiliated accounts, with an estimated 1.6 million followers.
While much of her work today stems directly from the work she did in public relations and communications, Esser says the groundwork was definitely laid while at Colby. The energy that government professors Anthony Corrado and G. Calvin Mackenzie brought to government classes, she said, inspired her. Now faculty follow the changes that technology has brought to the way government communicates.
Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of Government at Colby, said the U.S. State Department, through Esser’s office, is trying to “broaden the arc of American outreach.” But Mackenzie also noted that technology is always a double-edged sword.
“Each one widens the potential audience, but also expands the risk of misinterpreted messages,” Mackenzie said in an e-mail interview from Vietnam, where he was on a Fulbright fellowship. “Those who ask if this [social media] is a good idea may operate under the illusion that we somehow have a choice of not using these technologies. But technology drives our choices then takes them away. Could we not use telephones or radio or television once they reached critical mass? Only at our peril. And so it is with the newer social technologies. They may seem like silliness at first. But soon they’ve become central forms of human interaction. Avoid them and you’re sure to miss something important.”
The immediacy and speed with which information bounces around the world and echoes and is amplified makes it easy to step on people’s toes. For example, Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia, has been an avid user of Twitter, but he has gotten himself in trouble by Tweeting commentary a bit too blunt for diplomatic niceties.
“When you have that real-time engagement, you know there can be instances where you wish you put a period here or there and you wish you had said something slightly differently. ...,” Esser said. “It’s different from our traditional diplomatic engagement. You’re still choosing your words carefully, but it’s a not a formal communiqué that’s going out. It does create a different dynamic.”