Digital Diplomacy Through Online Events

(Originally published March 2015 in the Streaming Media Super Guide)

For the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), “connecting people with policy” is more than just their tag line. IIP is charged with conducting outreach to foreign audiences, and it uses tools that allow for a truly free exchange of information on a number of topics.

One of IIP’s most powerful tools is live, interactive online events. People can log in from anywhere in the world to watch a live video stream featuring U.S. Government officials and/or American experts and interact with them, or other audience members, through real-time chat. The chat can be free-flowing or be used in a Question and Answer format. To date, IIP has hosted more than 1,000 such events.

IIP’s events have covered a wide range of topics, from U.S. policy on the environment to the U.S. judicial system and even programs on sports diplomacy. “One of the important evolutions that has taken place here is understanding that we can now use technology to conduct this kind of outreach,” says Mark Betka of IIP’s Interactive group.

In the past, the options were mainstream media, publications or sending delegates to meet with people in person. Those options are still available but now there are online tools that allow IIP to reach people no matter where they are in the world, at any time, and on whatever devices they’re using.

A voice in the conversation

Live events also help IIP to become part of a conversation that’s already taking place all around the world. “With Internet and social media, there are virtually millions of people discussing the U.S., and not always with the best of intentions, or more importantly, not always with the right facts. So the other half of this equation of why we’re doing live events is we can’t afford not to,” says Betka.

By leveraging various technology platforms, IIP curates not only a more holistic experience with its various stakeholders, it is also cost-effective. A live streaming event combined with chat capabilities can be as effective as travelling to meet an audience in person. Or for areas that are impractical to visit in person, such as if there is a flare-up of violence in an area, the intended audiences can still be reached. And when representatives do meet with people in other countries, live events help keep the dialogue going even after they have returned to the U.S.

A robust platform for interaction

IIP sought real-time engagement during live events. Betka says that the Bureau was looking for a way to provide interaction in a way that was more robust than just using social media. “We really felt that we needed a place where people could engage almost in a more long form format. Something beyond 140 characters and Chatroll allows us to do that,” he says.

The private chat feature allows IIP to directly engage people one-on-one discussions and to help solve technical problems when they arise.

Audience members are given the choice to be authenticated using their existing social media logins, which allows for cross-platform interaction and helps to keep the conversation going even beyond the event. IIP encourages continued interaction between audience members by posting links in the chat to direct users to websites to keep the discussion going.

Several of IIP’s live events have been in other languages, including Spanish and Portuguese.

IIP has reached thousands of foreign audience members in the course of its programming history. “We make those programs worth conducting when we make them very interactive. And Chatroll is one of those elements to help to make it interactive,” says Betka. “I’m certain that if we were to do away with live chat, we would see a decrease in participation, because you’d be taking away a hugely important part of why we call these interactive programs.”

Growing online communities

An example of a community program that benefitted from the live interaction is the Young African Leaders Initiative, which was designed to tap into the experiences of individuals who are on track to being Africa’s future leaders. These young Africans lived in the United States and were able to share what they learned through the live events. The engagement and online interaction continued even after the event ended.

Foreign audiences often hear about live events through Department of State personnel who are in U.S. embassies around the world. These delegates request the live events from IIP and gather audiences locally, which allow the programs to be responsive to real needs in the field.

Live events can be especially powerful in places where Internet connection or bandwidth is an issue. Delegates in those countries can set up “American Spaces,” which are local places for people to attend an event in person and be part of the experience.

“Our foreign guests in these programs find it hugely rewarding. It’s not just a passive viewing experience but something you can be an active part of. And that’s exactly the guidance that’s been given by our leadership – we need to connect people with policy and the way you do that in part is making these foreign publics actually part of the discussion,” says Betka.

“I would say that the most important thing here has been the fact that it has opened up a real channel of communication for people abroad to have a direct line either to a U.S. policy maker or subject matter experts on any number of topics.”

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