Tuttle tattle

Dick Custin and Anna Girvan from the US Embassy tell Elizabeth Stewart how embassies in London can reach out to a global audience.

Speak to any American and invariably the conversation will turn to the US elections – who is the best challenger for John McCain: Hilary or Obama? Who are the super-delegates? How are they chosen? Is the electoral college system fair?

It’s the kind of buzz most diplomatic missions can only dream of, and US Ambassador Robert Tuttle wasted no time capitalising on it.

Public diplomacy tool
So he came up with the idea of hosting a webchat on the US elections, throwing the virtual floor open to questions from the public, not only in the UK, but from around the globe. The questions came in from near and far – with participants engaging in a virtual conversation with the Ambassador from as far a-field as China and Tajikistan on subjects as diverse as why the US limits its presidents to two terms (a tradition started by Washington, with only Roosevelt serving four terms); the fairness of the electoral college system and even US policy in Somaliland (visit https://uk.usembassy.gov to read the transcript)

“The web is a great tool for people-to-people diplomacy,” says Dick Custin, Press Officer at the US Embassy. “And you gain a lot of respect by giving people a forum – whether they agree with you or not, they respect the fact that you are offering them a forum and you want to hear their views. And they get a response.”

“The web is a great tool for people to people diplomacy. And you gain a lot of respect by giving people a forum”

Diversity of opinion
There are two crucial aspects to consider before even setting up the chatroom, says Custin: be sure to have a hot topic that will engage participants; secondly, market your webchat extensively through all available channels.

The technical side of setting up a webchat requires some technical back-up. Ask your webmaster to contact your web host who will be able to advise you on software that will enable you to create a ‘chatroom’ which participants can access through a link on your website.

To register, participants simply need to click on the link, provide an email address and a user name. In the interests of privacy, participants can remain anonymous and no personal information is gathered or stored on them.

While some questions are emailed by participants in advance, most questions are posted while the chat is live so it’s important to have researchers on hand for some of the more technical questions.

All questions are filtered through a moderator who selects which questions to answer. “It is important to pick and choose among the questions,” says Custin. “Some will be far too detailed, some may be too personal, and others are just irrelevant. You’d be surprised how many questions we received in our elections webchat on visas! But if somebody disagrees or presents another side, we will put that up, so long as it is germane to the issue. We want diversity of opinion.”

The webchat has proved such a successful public diplomacy tool that it has been used several times by the Embassy – to discuss the mid-term elections, the US Art in Embassies Programme (co-hosted by Ambassador Tuttle and his wife Maria) and several consular webchats on immigrant and non-immigrant visas which – predictably – are very popular.

Embassy blogs
The latest webchat on the US Primaries was used to launch the embassy’s political blog, which is intended to provide an insight into American political thought with a variety of different voices.

But this is not their first blog: the US Embassy has another blog, dedicated to environmental issues, run by the mission’s green envoy Jock Whittlesey, whose postings generate debate from scientists in the UK and beyond.

Setting up a blog is easy: simply download free software from the internet (wordpress is a good choice;
www.wordpress.org), modify the templates to suit, and begin blogging.

“The thing that is wonderful about blogs is that it is people to people communication,” says Custin “It’s a virtual dialogue which you don’t have when you hand somebody a document or a text. People can express their thoughts, ask their questions and get a response. That is one of the most valuable things that we can do in public diplomacy.”

Podcasts and vodcasts
The press office has begun to post information on the website in a variety of different formats – from audio podcasts of visiting politicians, officials and generals to visual vodcasts such as the avant garde New York performance band Universes.

Look out for the vodcast in May about the Embassy’s security perimeter project – the clip will contain details about the project as well as visual information about new access points for the Embassy – essential to visiting diplomats.

“For the past three years there has been a push to get us to the technological edge because that is where people are today. However people are using technology, that’s where we have to be”

Uploading podcasts and vodcasts is also simple, but good equipment and editing software is needed if you want your material to be broadcast quality, says the director of the Information Resource Centre, Anna Girvan.

If a newsmaker is in town and records a podcast or vodcast, the press office will then notify their contacts, enabling news websites, television channels and radio stations to use the material as well, which is another way of getting policy messages to a broader audience.

“For the past three years there has been a push to get us to the technological edge because that is where people are today. However people are using technology, that’s where we have to be,” says Custin.

Using technology also attracts a different, mostly younger audience. “The key is that you are reaching out to a tech attuned audience – and it’s a fairly good assumption that this is a younger demographic. Plus you have worldwide outreach, “ he adds.

And to keep audiences aware of their various web offerings, the Embassy has a weekly alert service which regular visitors can subscribe to with a summary of all the new items on the web.

Diverting traffic
Predictably, the US Embassy website gets a lot of traffic, probably more than most embassy websites. According to Girvan, the US Embassy website has approximately 154,000 unique users per month – that is the number of people accessing the website from a specific internet provider address. There are approximately 1.75 million page views or impressions a month – the number of times a visitor clicks to view a particular page on the website. And an astonishing 90 million hits a year (although this statistic is apparently not very meaningful).

But an analysis of this data (which Custin again stresses is entirely anonymous) shows that 60% of people still visit the website for basic consular information, says Custin. “The trick is to grab them with some other interesting information – it might be cultural, or policy or a news event that involves UK-US relations. In that way we hope to keep bringing them back to the website and we keep our virtual conversation going.”

Would you like to know more? For webchat management, contact Dick Custin atcustindr@state.gov and for technical web questions, contact Anna Girvan on girvanx@state.gov

The US Website in Numbers

  • 154,000 unique users a month
  • 1.75m page views a month
  • 90m hits a year