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Corporate Public Diplomacy: Engaging and Improving Stakeholder Communities

This post was originally published in Public Diplomacy Magazine (a publication of the University of Southern California) on July 14, 2010.

Usually, when someone hears the word “diplomacy,” they think of the government. Who can blame them? Diplomacy has long been the province of old men in dark suits and red ties, and before that of elite members of society trusted by presidents, emperors, and kings. But now, particularly with the rise of inexpensive personal communications technology, vast changes in the mainstream and other kinds of media, and an evolution in how consumers interact with and make decisions about “brands,” this is changing.

Public diplomacy is the formal and proactive practice of governments communicating with citizens in foreign countries through diverse forms of media, events, and other engagement. Such activities may include broadcast radio, specially tailored films, and educational programs. But while public diplomacy is still widely thought of as being performed only by governments, there is a good deal of value in applying many of its principles to corporations and indeed other entities like non-profits. It especially makes sense when a brand (broadly defined) could be perceived as large, monolithic, and out of touch with the common person.

While my job title is not formally “public diplomat,” I have been incorporating some of these ideals into my new role at the Microsoft Corporation, by any standard a large entity with a global reach into science and technology, research and development, jobs and commerce, a wide range of government policy and related issues, and numerous philanthropies, causes, and movements. Yet despite this influence, while the company has a tremendous number of customers and fans, at the same time a fair amount of other consumers have a negative perception of the company for a variety of reasons, or they simply don’t think about it very much. One of my roles is to conduct positive activities of value for communities of consumers in order to, yes, change the perception of Microsoft – but also to improve those communities in the process.

Diverse Backgrounds Yield Good Public Diplomats

For a good part of my career, I was a scientist researching how animal behavior is controlled by genes and neurons. Building on that foundation of critical thinking and an understanding of complex behavioral systems, I received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006 and was able to conduct science and technology policy research at the Department of Defense for a few years. That experience opened my eyes to everything from the inner workings of military organizational behavior to how social technology is changing how the government conducts its operations.

After my three year stint at the Defense Department, I did a lot of thinking, reading, and writing. I taught a university class about “entrepreneurial journalism,” and consulted some private sector clients about how emerging technologies are changing and democratizing media, marketing, and other specialties. During that period, I also consulted with Microsoft about what I now see as a public diplomacy effort run out of their U.S. Public Sector division based in Washington, D.C.. The division is responsible for Microsoft business across federal, state and local government, higher education and K-12 markets, as well as a significant portion of the U.S. healthcare market.

In my role as Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement, I conduct a number of activities, not all of which are germane to this article. But with regard to my public-facing activities, I think of much of it as corporate public diplomacy. From a business point of view, my role differs in many ways from traditional public relations or public affairs, which despite a recent influx of new technologies still mainly involves “providing information for the public” at its core. Corporate public diplomacy, on the other hand, involves actively shaping the communications environment within which corporate activities are performed, and reducing the degree to which misperceptions complicate relations between the company and its customers. In my view, this complex mission is conducted using what I call “innovative social engagement.”

I don’t think I could have arrived at this role through more traditional routes like studying technology, business, journalism, or marketing. None of those routes provide the skill set that, in my opinion, are required for corporate public diplomacy. One must understand enough business to work within one, but not so much that one loses empathy for outsiders. One must have enough knowledge of technology to use it for various purposes, but not so much that one is unable to speak to people at a basic level about it. One must have public speaking and writing skills, but also be able to adapt those to company goals. A corporate public diplomat should be an insider and outsider, independent and dependent, creative and conservative, all at once. And they must above all be agile enough to know when to switch between behavioral states.

When people ask me how I got where I am with a doctorate in animal behavior, I often think, “Really?” – It’s all animal behavior.

What is Innovative Social Engagement?

When people ask me to explain my job, I often tell them that they can get the 30 second version, or the 30 minute version. That’s largely because corporate public diplomacy, as I see it, amalgamates many aspects of other people’s jobs, re-packages them in novel ways, and then adds some unique skills on top of that. Simple, no?

The simple way to start is to tell you what it is not. After observing many people whose jobs variously involve public relations, marketing, communications, advertising, technology, sales, and “being digital natives,” let me describe what corporate public diplomacy is not “merely”:

  • It’s not merely leveraging my personal brand to promote a corporate brand, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely using social media platforms to connect with audiences in the public sector, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely making social connections with influential people in real life, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely engaging people complaining about the company online and conducting after-the-fact customer service, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating public relations events to get people’s attention, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely developing word-of-mouth marketing campaigns or helping the company go against type and poke fun at itself, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely chasing the coolest, latest trends and incorporating them into strategies, nor reviewing cutting-edge tech gadgetry, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely reporting live from events nor interviewing people inside the company on video (something like what Robert Scoble famously did for Microsoft), though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely being a product evangelist, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely measuring the effect of online communications on customers, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating a blog and writing about the best ideas or latest news or providing the most value to the most people, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating new online opportunities for product sales, though that’s part of it.

My vision of corporate public diplomacy via innovative social engagement includes many if not all of these things, but it is not simply one or a few of these things. My charges include creating lasting and meaningful experiences for audiences, engaging willing participants in my work-related social activities, creating emotional responses with Microsoft brands of relevance to the public sector, volunteer sector, and general public good, transcending brand expectations to add value to people’s lives, and generally being remarkable (in the vein of Seth Godin) to specific people I desire to engage with and even influence.

Some Examples of Corporate Public Diplomacy

About a year ago when I wrote a blog post announcing and describing my new Microsoft role, I wrote that I’d be doing at least seven things immediately:

(1)  Interacting with and socially empowering the other members of the seven-person Applied Innovations Team;

(2)  Discussing my opinions about science and technology in the public sector and continuing to be a thought leader there;

(3)  Experimenting with new pre-sale information and social technology, often beta or free products that potentially have a public sector role;

(4)  Showing the human side of Microsoft and engaging audiences through multimedia channel content production and other online activities;

(5)  Participating actively in the public sector communities of government, education, and healthcare;

(6)  Measuring and understanding public sentiment about Microsoft using innovative techniques;

(7)  Acting as a competent resource for senior Microsoft decision makers, corporate partners, and customers, and public sector decision makers.

To some degree or another, I have been doing all of these things. But life in a newly-created role is always a bit different than you imagine after you take time to understand what is, and is not, happening inside a huge organization, and figure out your role within it. Thus, during the past 10 months or so, in something akin to a “think-and-do tank” mode, I’ve been creating and promoting fresh, innovative ways of engaging different audiences. These engagements – online and offline – tend to leverage Microsoft’s existing strengths, applied in novel ways. Here are three examples, in brief.

An online magazine, SECTOR: PUBLIC

While there is certainly some good writing on different aspects of new technology and the public and volunteer sectors, I recognized a need for an overarching publication that leveraged Microsoft’s natural intellectual assets to provide thought leadership on all aspects of technology and innovation, and how they are changing the business of the public and volunteer sectors and empowering new forms of public service and social change. I edit this online magazine, named SECTOR: PUBLIC, and manage a group of writers from the company. We are obviously pro-Microsoft, but the stories are written with the audience in mind, and encompass ideas that go beyond strictly Microsoft products and initiatives.

An event series, Geek 2 Chic

This initiative recognizes that while Microsoft is very good at reaching certain kinds of customers – mainly very large, complicated institutions – we don’t necessarily do a good job of reaching out to certain types of influential communities, artists and fashion mavens, for example. Geek 2 Chic began as a fashion show to attract Washington, D.C. fashionistas to us in a genuine way – by showing off great styles in partnership with Bloomingdales, and having a fun social event around that (which also raised money for a good cause). But the trick was that all the models were “geeks” and we were able to highlight their terrific work during the show. This is evolving into a more general series that may involve cocktail hours, fashion shows, and intimate workshops, all designed to help “chic” people learn how to be more geeky in ways that help them with their careers. Here, our natural strength is that through Microsoft networks, we know many of the geeks that can give advice to chic people; thus we can structure creative networking opportunities for all involved that are also fun.

A networking space, Project Pivot

Another need I recognized is that entrepreneurially spirited people often don’t have great places to work. These people are also often interested in public good and social change, and are tech-savvy to some degree. In a few cities like San Francisco and New York, this group is better catered to, but in many others like Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, they are less so. Leveraging the excess office space and wi-fi that Microsoft has in many of its buildings, I am just about ready to launch something I’ve tentatively named Project Pivot, which is a private, invite-only entrepreneurial co-working space (starting in Washington, D.C.) that also has members-only benefits like luncheon speakers and a private discussion board. Not only does this provide great things for this community – office space, networking opportunities, free coffee – but it also helps Microsoft better understand what this group of talented young people is doing in their communities, and how our technologies might help them as well.

Corporate Public Diplomacy: One Year In

It’s a little too early to say how successful these efforts will be. But I have been forming a set of mental “design principles” which govern how I decide what a given engagement might be. I’m not prepared to write them up at the moment (and they’re outside the scope of this article), but one of them certainly is that I think about what the audience needs before I think about what Microsoft needs. Once I know who an audience is, and understand what their needs are, I look at how Microsoft’s assets – financial, human, other – might be deployed to serve those needs.

It’s one thing to talk to audiences and try to influence them. Anyone can say whatever they want. But the way to gradually change the communications environment around a brand that many people already have an opinion about, is to be somewhat selfless and provide genuine value which resonates with that audience. Actions speak louder than words.

Mark D. Drapeau, Ph.D. is the Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement for Microsoft Corporation, where he engages audiences at the intersection of technology and innovation and the public and volunteer sectors. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine SECTOR: PUBLIC, which provides thought leadership on these topics. Prior to joining Microsoft, Dr. Drapeau was an adjunct professor at The George Washington University, an Associate Fellow at the National Defense University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University. He has a B.S. and Ph.D. in animal behavior from the University of Rochester and the University of California – Irvine, respectively.

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Proactive Social Media: Filling the Information Space With Great Content

This post was originally published on BrianSolis.com on September 4, 2009.

Guest Post by Dr. Mark Drapeau – read his blog, follow him on Twitter


I recently gave a talk titled Free the People! at the Potomac Forum’s Government 2.0 Leadership, Collaboration, and Public Engagement Symposium in Washington, DC that generated enough interest for me to post my slide deck and write a summary for a wider audience. These thoughts constitute some of my early ideas about “offensive social media” for organizations (this talk was particularly geared towards a government audience, but the fundamentals apply to the private and public sectors more broadly).

Anti-social vs. social government communications: Typically, there are a number of layers between a government employee communicating with a citizen – bosses, committees, lawyers, public affairs, and so forth. This is an anti-social approach to citizen relations. There are good reasons for the current system, but the problem is that new social technologies allow this system to be easily bypassed, even accidentally, by “government socialites.” Admiral Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, commented that we want to honor the past, but not operate in it. So how can we slay some sacred cows and modernize government-citizen interactions?

Social media is about being social – Sharing is caring: Social media is about being social both online and in real life. Its mastery is primarily not about technology but about people sharing information through social networks. Technical savvy is needed far less than leadership. If you understand collaboration and communication, you can understand social media. How many government leaders understand how the inside of a phone works? Social media is a very powerful force, because anyone with a phone or a computer can create, comment on, and spread content. And increasingly, this is done in people’s personal lives – and the lines between work and play have blurred considerably.

Remember that citizens are your ‘end user’ – change the public’s expectations of you: Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, once said that customer service is public service. But how many public servants consider themselves in the customer service business? How many citizens interested in the environment can name someone working for the EPA? How many schoolteachers can name a senior official at the Department of Education? How often does the average government employee meaningfully interact with a citizen who cares about what they do? The government is not “usable” to the average citizen. It can be, and it should be, though. You can play a role in making that happen. Interact with your agency’s biggest fans online and in real life; listen to them and let them help you achieve your mission. The Bloggers Roundtable from the Department of Defense is a good example of this.

Saying “It’s not in my job description” is not in your job description: Often people resist change because they fear the unknown, are afraid of losing control, or have some other interest in the status quo. Unfortunately, social tools are empowering collaboration behind their backs, and they’re going to get stepped on or over, directly or indirectly. Do you know how I met ADM Allen from the Coast Guard? Facebook. The lines between work and play are blurring, particularly when it comes to things like networking and participation. Is checking someone’s GovLoop blog “work”? Who knows. What I do know is that the people doing it are better off than the ones ignorant of it.

Tactics are nothing, Strategy is everything: No talk would be complete without quoting Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before the defeat.” You need to start off with a strategy for yourself, for your office, or for your agency. What do I want to accomplish? What could we be doing better? Make a list of goals and stick to it. Social media is not a generic toolbox. It’s not a jumble of names of companies. It’s a set of functionality that if used right can provide innovative solutions to specific problems you’re facing.

The best offense is a good offense – Being only defensive is offensive: I think that being only reactive can be a radioactive strategy. Yes, of course you should monitor what people are saying about where you work and the topics you work on. But the really powerful behavior is anticipating what’s coming and seeing it before others do. A broader strategy is playing offense and defense with social media. It’s being proactive and reactive. You either put out information on your own terms, or someone will fill the vacuum for you. I term this “offensive social media” and I think that this is the behavior which truly generates word of mouth about your organization and its activities.

Content is king, but marketing is the queen (and we know who rules the castle): [That’s a Gary Vaynerchuk line from a keynote I heard him give.] The most important thing you can do with social media is share quality information that contributes to the knowledge base, and adds value to people’s lives. Ask yourself, will citizens be better off for having seen this content? But beyond that, don’t forget to market your content. In the future, you won’t find the content, the content will find you. Talk about your content at events, link to it off other people’s websites, use social bookmarking, Facebook Wall posts, Twitter, and other mechanisms to publicize what you content is. Furthermore, be where your audience is. Don’t use Plurk if you know most of your audience is on Twitter, don’t use MySpace if you know your fans are on Facebook, and so forth. And where applicable, use multiple formats to provide the same information.

Sometimes the message is the message – dominate the information spectrum: That said, sometimes the message is itself the message. What I mean by that is merely having a presence, sharing any kind of information, showing citizens that you care about them, can actually be in some sense more powerful than the actual information that you’re sharing. Borrowing from the military, I call this the full-spectrum dominance strategy. You don’t necessarily have to use every tool, but when people are looking for information about defense, or education, or environment, do they find information that you shared? That’s the real question you need to answer.

Discover your internal ambassadors and set them free within your microniche: Charlene Li has said that for large organizations, social engagement with stakeholders cannot remain only in the hands of a few social media experts – it must be embraced culturally by entire organizations and used tactically by many people in many places at many times. Everyone to some degree is a communicator, as the Air Force has said. Give up the idea of message control. People inside your organization are already using these tools at work and at home. And they’re already talking about their work while they’re golfing with their friends or cooking dinner with their spouse. So instead of cracking down on these government socialites, reward them – they’re the most likely all-star public ambassadors you already have. Unlock their hidden potential. Education and training is required, though. Train against stupidity and embarrassment, don’t micromanage, and trust your employees. You already trust them to fly fighter jets and manage hundreds of millions of public dollars, but you don’t trust them to tweet from a Blackberry? That notion is quickly becoming antiquated.

Choose the right tools for the job. Ignore the hype. Experiment. Fail safely: Once you have your strategy, have mapped out some goals, and have identified some leaders who can help you achieve this, choose the right tools for the job. Some tools are better than others for achieving different missions. In some cases, writing will be better, in others photos, and in others video. Maybe you want to offer interactive video chat. I can’t answer these questions about your organization. But I can say that you should largely ignore the hype. MySpace isn’t dead, Twitter isn’t the answer to every question, and WordPress might be more complicated than what you need. Read about the technology, attend events that prolific users actually go to (hint: not government conferences), and conduct small experiments. Fail safely. Or fail small. Don’t use new tools in ways that if they don’t work they’ll be very embarrassing for people or groups. Look at others’ best practices, start small, and learn a little bit as you go along. Don’t take big risks.

Metrics are answers looking for problems. Ask: Is what I’m doing adding value to the community? People get very obsessed with measuring things. Critics especially will ask, what’s the return on investment from a blog, or what’s the ROI on tweeting 10 times a day. I say, what’s the ROI on a meeting that runs too long, or the ROI on a lunch break? I’d also like to know the ROI on actually collecting, analyzing, and discussing the metrics in the first place. How does 10 people sitting in a room for two hours discussing the relative benefits of 450 vs. 750 Twitter followers help people? I like to say, “I count thank you’s, not click through’s.” I count the number of times someone says “I know you from Twitter” or “I read your Federal Computer Week article.” So ask yourself, is what I’m doing helping my community of interest?

Don’t just feel the pulse. Be the pulse: This was said by someone from one of the most successful crowdsourcing companies out there….Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Threadless. [show of hands: no one in the room had heard of it] When people think of the environment, or national security, or education, do they think of your blog, your Twitter feed, your YouTube video channel? Probably not yet – but they could. And that has huge indirect positive effects for you, your boss, and your organization. This goes back to using social media in proactive vs. reactive ways. When you’re proactive and incredibly giving of time, energy, and information, you’re what Shel Israel calls “lethally generous.” http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2008/10/using-lethal-ge.html You become a very trusted member of a community. And therefore information starts flowing back to you, and you can anticipate rather than merely react. Don’t just talk about your office and your agency – Intelligently curate information about your sector, your industry.

Influence = Brand x Experience x Trust. So, what’s your brand? Who are your experts? Does anyone trust you? [This slide title borrowed from @micah’s talk from Gnomedex] – Distrust of the government and its messages have never been higher. http://people-press.org/report/95/ So how can government social media help combat this attitude in the country? One, think about your brand. Yes, the government has brands even though we’re not selling breakfast cereal like on Mad Men. But we are in some sense selling ideas and information and giving products like Social Security to people. And we do have brands – think about photos of the Capitol, or a Marine in full dress uniform, or a dollar bill. Second, who are the ambassadors that are presenting your brand to the public? What are they saying? How can they help your office or agency better achieve its missions? Third, does anyone trust your content? Provide great content, make it accessible, pervasively interact with the community, and build trust over time.

Indecision is not a decision. Plans are nothing without action. I want to conclude by saying that you can think about this and plan all you want, but none of it means anything without taking some sort of action. There’s no ROI in planning your social media strategy for a year – by the time you have one, it’ll be outdated. Make connections, read about emerging technology, start learning and experimenting, and begin moving forward on your offensive social media strategy that provides incredible value to citizens and fills the information space with great content from your organization.

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Do Brands Belong on Twitter?

This post was originally published on Mashable on December 12, 2008. I remember it being somewhat controversial at the time. I still believe that most people in most cases would rather interact with an actual person representing a brand than an anonymous brand social media account — given the choice (which they often aren’t).

Behind every Twitter account is a person. But some of these people ‘hide’ behind organizational brands, obscuring their persona and therefore reducing authenticity and transparency.

While some brands do a decent job of engaging people on Twitter, many don’t, and one could further argue that brand names and logos, as opposed to full names and user images, are not in the spirit of the Twitterverse.

People Talk to People

Twitter is about people sharing information with other people. So how do one-dimensional organizational brands fit into this mix? When you really think about it, they don’t. As an analogy, when you call customer service, a human answers the phone (eventually) and tells you their name – and you’re not talking to “Sprint” or “Dell” but rather “Steve” or “Danny.”


So, does anyone really want to talk to @DunkinDonuts? Or would they rather talk to Bill Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin Donuts of Canton, MA, or perhaps the local franchise owner on Capitol Hill, or a disgruntled but funny summer employee punching in at 4am? People connect with people, and so I think the latter.

Twitter is still deciding how to monetize, and one possible approach would be to charge organizations a fee for using the service as a marketing tool. Most brands are not yet tweeting, but selling a premium service might increase Twitter’s profile and suddenly seem like an attractive strategy. I think this would be a mistake from the viewpoint of people who use Twitter.

Twitter may become little more than an enormous number of feeds, mainly full of nothing of interest to you. And while the system is built to be opt-in, the prospect of wading through 100 or 1000 times more junk when you do searches, companies hiring SEO consultants to put key words in front of your face, and seeing @AnimalCrackers at the top of the TwitterGrader list in my local area are unattractive byproducts of this business model. (Alternatively, brands just might not buy in at all.)

No Brands on Twitter

Thinking about what might be best for people, in my opinion Twitter should not only not charge brands for membership, but also ban them altogether. Not unlike Facebook and other sites, every account would represent a person using a real name, location, and picture.

People could still tout their businesses, hobbies, and anything else in their handle, bio, or feed, but in an environment of authenticity and therefore increased trust. Some people will game the system, to be sure; but they will often get found out through the wisdom of crowds, so what’s the point?

New users would find having only real, authentic people on Twitter more attractive. Let’s face it, not many people use Twitter yet, and a company with a trusted brand like IBM could develop a platform with a better GUI and a few more features that my parents would be far more likely to try out, perhaps initially bankrolled as a public service. Twitter is far from invulnerable.

Personalities Might Help Brands

this-space-for-rentI think that authentic and transparent personal Twitter accounts – being yourself in an uncontrived way – may indirectly and intimately influence (I3) organizational brands, because of the level of trust involved in sharing information with someone over the course of time. Many people have increased awareness of the government through talking to me and reading my Twitter feed. But I am not a public affairs professional, nor the official brand of the Department of Defense – just an informed, empowered, and hopefully interesting individual.

Having just one personal account would also streamline Twitter’s user base, structuring it in a slight but possibly meaningful way. Why try to gain ambient awareness via TwitterFeed, when each person associated with an organization is a word-of-mouth advertising device?

Dr. Mark Drapeau is a biological scientist, government consultant, and regular contributor to Mashable.com and other venues. These views are his own and do not represent the official views of any organization.

Imagery courtesy of iStockphoto, upsidedowndog

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