Promoting a cause through YouTube

Earlier this year, following the rapidly escalating post-election events in Iran, the State Department made a request to the two-year-old company that has made Twitter a household name: Consider delaying a previously scheduled service outage so that “tweets” from the streets of Iran can continue uninterrupted.


Are we in the midst of a Twitter Revolution, as some have proclaimed? Or not so fast, as others have cautioned? The evidence is still coming in. But it is hard to refute the prominent role the technology has played — and continues to play — in Iran and around the world.

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The State Department has operated for some time under the principle that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube influence the everyday lives of many around the world. In an effort started under the previous administration and continued by the current, social media has quietly become a powerful diplomacy tool in the United States’ arsenal. For the State Department, social media is the message of American diplomacy.

Organizations executing public relations and advocacy campaigns both here and abroad can learn by studying State’s efforts.

The best example of State’s use of social media is its Democracy Video Challenge. Launched at the beginning of last year to promote democratic ideals, the Video Challenge invites citizens from around the globe to submit videos that complete the phrase “Democracy is … ” As a measure of its success, over 900 entrants submitted original videos demonstrating what democracy means to them.

The Democracy Video Challenge exemplifies a number of core American values. Its open-ended nature is the embodiment of freedom of speech.

Submissions were not censored, edited or weeded out. Provided they did not incite violence or contain profanity, videos were accepted as valid submissions. In addition, the viral nature of the contest made it easy for people to share videos with friends and engage in a real discussion about what democracy does and should mean. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched videos created by their peers.

The Democracy Video Challenge also involved the most fundamental of democratic actions: voting. After the initial submission timeframe, which lasted from September 2008 to January 2009, an independent jury narrowed the applicants to a field of finalists and then opened it up to the public for a monthlong voting period to select the ultimate winner of the contest (think “American Idol” for politics). Voting closed just a few months ago, resulting in the selection of six winners from different regions of the world.

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t read about the winners in the news. Most Americans have never heard of the Democracy Video Challenge — or of other cutting-edge initiatives by the State Department. That’s because of an obscure piece of legislation, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibits the U.S. government from distributing information intended for foreign audiences through domestic channels. For decades, the State Department has produced publications designed for consumption overseas, specifically publications that most Americans have never seen.

The Smith-Mundt Act may not be as relevant as it once was. That’s because the State Department’s approach to public diplomacy is changing. Rather than simply distributing one-directional magazines and e-journals, the agency is using modern technology and social media tools to engage in a back-and-forth dialogue with the public. This new online approach cannot be contained by geographical boundaries.

Engaging the foreign public through social media is one of the most effective tools the U.S. government will have in the coming decades to promote democracy and American values. But it doesn’t come cheaply.

Many people think that Web-based outreach means more bang for your buck — the same or better results can be achieved faster and cheaper online.

This is certainly true to a degree, but distributing content on the free platforms still requires significant efforts to be effective.

When Doritos launched a user-generated commercial contest to air an ad in the 2007 Super Bowl, the corporation publicized how much money it had saved by letting a customer produce a low-budget commercial rather than spending money for high-quality filming and production crews. What was not disclosed was how labor-intensive the project itself was, including the vast amounts of time spent developing contest rules, screening submissions, setting up the voting process and hosting the technology involved.

These principles can also apply to public-affairs campaigns. Many organizations make the mistake, for instance, of thinking they can just make a low-cost video, upload it to YouTube and have it magically “go viral.” In reality, the work and resources required to organize, plan, promote and manage a successful social media effort are not insignificant.

But, like the Democratic Video Challenge shows us, a well-run user-generated campaign can produce powerful results.

Mascott is the managing director of the Adfero Group (www.adfero.com), a full-service public-relations firm located in Washington, and is also the editor of K Street Café (www.kstreetcafe.com), a collaborative blog discussing how technology and the Internet are changing the public-affairs industry.