State Department to take a step into the digital age in effort to counter disinformation

Carol Morello, Washington Post, April 12th, 2019

The State Department has never been known for its communications savvy or deployment of cutting-edge technology in the service of diplomacy.

Many employees still use BlackBerrys, and in an era when news spreads instantaneously on Twitter, it can take hours for the department’s public affairs office to issue a brief statement explaining its view of a foreign policy crisis.

Now, the State Department is preparing to step into the digital age by merging two bureaus, one that focuses on communications abroad and the other on communications in the United States.

Described as the biggest structural change at the State Department in 20 years, the move is part of a broader effort to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia and China.

Combining the domestic and international branches of public diplomacy has been under consideration for years but never gained traction, in part because of a 1948 law prohibiting the U.S. government from propagandizing to Americans.

The merger, which will be outlined to State Department employees next week, combines the Bureau of Public Affairs, responsible for communications pertinent to the secretary of state and the workings of the State Department, with the Bureau of International Information Programs, which coordinates public diplomacy for foreign offices. The new Global Public Affairs bureau will have a staff of about 300.

“Everything is multinational, global in nature,” said Michelle Giuda, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, who shepherded the merger. “We’ve got an increasingly complex communications landscape. Same thing when it comes to foreign policy. And we have to be able to adapt, to lead, to thrive and communicate American values and American foreign policy in that type of environment.”

Giuda, who was sworn in 15 months ago under Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, brings a corporate perspective to the State Department. She previously served as the deputy press secretary for former House speaker Newt Gingrich during his 2012 presidential bid and then spent five years as a senior vice president of global corporate communications for Weber Shandwick, a worldwide public relations firm.

The State Department has a thick layer of bureaucracy and standard practices, in part for security reasons and because of the Smith-Mundt Act. The 1948 law bars the State Department and other federal agencies from aiming government programming at Americans to keep government propaganda from swaying voters.

“That’s part of the reason why folks were afraid to work on this issue for a very long time,” said Shawn Powers, a former head of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which has recommended the merger in every annual report since 2014. “The Smith-Mundt statute is ingrained in State Department employees’ heads from early training. They said, ‘There’s no way we can do this.’ ”

But the restrictions had less meaning in a digital age when foreign reporters attend State Department briefings and U.S.-based reporters follow teleconferences held by U.S. officials abroad.

The Islamic State and Russian trolls are adept at using social media to advance their causes, and the United States is widely considered to be slow at responding. But the approaches are far different.

“The U.S. government insists on putting its name on its messages,” Powers said. “We’re eager to say this program is from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, or this aid is from USAID. The Russians are eager to distance themselves from it.”

The merger was months in the making. Giuda proposed exploring the merger in July. After getting the go-ahead from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, she convened a task force within five days.

“Our ability to communicate American foreign policy and values around the world is absolutely core to our success at the State Department,” Pompeo said in a statement. “I’ve empowered my team to lead and to execute this mission as best they can. This critical change and evolution within our public diplomacy operation will ensure we deliver on that mission in the 21st century.”

The combined bureau is part of a larger strategy under Pompeo to revamp media outreach and showcase the State Department’s work.

He routinely travels with a photographer and a videographer, whose work is displayed on the websites of the State Department and embassies worldwide. He has also christened the Twitter accounts maintained for Pompeo, his chief spokesmen and the department as the “Department of Swagger.”

The State Department schedules dozens of interviews with him for media outlets that have not traditionally covered foreign policy, including faith-based media organizations and conservative publications, some of which have been invited to accompany him on travels abroad.

Giuda said she hopes briefings at the State Department — once conducted daily and now only two times a week or less — will increase now that a new spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, is in place.