To be effective, social media require more personal authority and less bureaucratic oversight. Yes, the State Department should restrict who can tweet and absolutely stick to a rule of no freelancing on policy. Your job as a tweeter is the same as your day job: promoting America's interests as the president sees them. But, except in the case of truly sensitive matters, clearance should not be necessary. If someone screws up, fix it afterward -- and quickly -- and hold the messenger responsible.
The problem at the State Department has been not too much talk, but too little. My predecessor, Karen Hughes, tried to encourage ambassadors to communicate by sending a talking-points email daily, with quotes from the president and the secretary. The message was, "If they can say it, you can -- and you should." That has continued, but there's still reticence. What I saw at the State Department was a deep fear that a single misstep -- just one -- will stop your career in its tracks.
In 2010, two of the State Department's best young officials, Alec Ross, the technology guru, and Jared Cohen, a Bush appointee with whom I worked to set up a network of online anti-violence groups now called Movements.org, traveled to Syria with a group of Silicon Valley executives. Ross and Cohen tweeted on the trip about buying American-style ice coffee at a university near Damascus and challenging a Syrian minister to a cake-eating contest. The New York Times said that these casual tweets "raised hackles on Capitol Hill." But instead of criticizing Ross, who is still at the State Department, and Cohen, now a Google executive, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised them for symbolizing the drive to "21st-century statecraft."
She was right. It would be unfortunate if the reaction to the Cairo tweet further inhibited most diplomats' inclination to risk aversion.
That tweet, according to reporting by Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, appears to have been an outlier. It began life as a news release from the embassy, issued at 12:18 p.m. Cairo time on Tuesday, Sept. 11 -- about four hours before demonstrations began and six hours before attackers breached the embassy's walls. The problem was that, even after the breach, the embassy continued to stand by the original theme. A tweet at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, since deleted, stated, "This morning's condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." The storming of the embassy was treated almost as an afterthought.
A State Department official told Rogin that the original statement was sent to Washington for clearance before posting and the Cairo embassy was told not to send it without changes, but Cairo put it out anyway. Rogin quoted the unnamed official as saying, "People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content.… Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone-deaf. It didn't provide adequate balance."
The top communications official in Cairo is Larry Schwartz, whom I knew at the State Department as one of the best in the business. He was the top public affairs officer in both India and Pakistan and had just left Washington, where he was running the Public Diplomacy Office of Policy Planning and Resources. Schwartz is outspoken, smart, and a bit rough around the edges -- which makes him both a rarity at the State Department and just the kind of person who should be using social media. His shop has been extremely active in Twitter and recently got into a nasty little colloquial spat with the Muslim Brotherhood that deployed the tool just right.
Clearly, if the unnamed State Department official is telling a straight story, Schwartz, who also vetted the original statement with his deputy chief of mission (the ambassador was in Washington at the time), should have made changes. Even if he sent out the first message too hastily, there was plenty of time to fix it. That's the thing with tweeting -- you can make corrections in real time.
A bigger problem, however, is that I suspect the Obama administration did not have a clear policy on how to handle scurrilous videos, cartoons, and the like. The rioting that followed the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 caused Bush officials, me included, to work hard preparing for another such event. We were sure it would happen again.
The right response today, I believe, has three parts, and the order is important: 1) violence is never acceptable, and America will take strong action if its people and property are attacked, 2) we believe in the principle of free speech, and 3) all religions deserve respect.
Effective public diplomacy begins with clear ends (which, as an aside, I am not so sure the United States has in Egypt or other parts of the Middle East), and leaders have the responsibility to communicate up and down the line both those ends and the right messages to achieve them. Get that right, and then liberated diplomats on the ground can use the amazing tool of social media -- a gift, really -- to powerful effect.