About the Author: Siobhan Sheils serves as an intern in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
This January, I joined the State Department as an intern on the Colombia Desk within the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Over the course of my internship, the region suffered a string of natural disasters: raging forest fires in Colombia; landslides in Peru; and most notably, massive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
During these ten weeks, I have returned often to a question posed in the October 2009 issue of Foreign Service Journal: do tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs (like DipNote) allow the State Department to adapt to higher public expectations for communication and the global media revolution?
In May, I will complete a two-year graduate-level public diplomacy program at Syracuse University -- one of two graduate public diplomacy programs in the country. In this capacity, I have been taught to consider ways to evaluate public diplomacy. However, I have also learned that creating a calculus for influencing public opinion is notoriously difficult.
A definitive answer to the question posed in Foreign Service Journal requires more time than a brief stint as a State intern. However, it is clear that public diplomacy is not just serving a public relations, or “Brand U.S.” function; it is also saving lives.
For example, in the critical days following the Haitian earthquake, embedding Google's Person Finder application on the State Department website provided an entry point for the public to participate directly in the relief effort, expediting assistance through digital diplomacy. The State Department also helped to start along with the Red Cross the text "Haiti" to "90999" initiative to help mobilize U.S. citizens to collectively raise over a million dollars in less than 24 hours through their cell phones. Following heavy rain and landslides in Machu Picchu, DipNote's Twitter feed supplied short-form updates on U.S. participation in a Peruvian-led effort to evacuate travelers. In Chile, the U.S. Embassy's Facebook wall continues to provide a forum for individual offers of assistance, requests for help, and information exchange. These examples mark a new age in the way the State Department facilitates people-to-people engagement. This cross-border civic discussion directly supports U.S. national interests because dialogue can lead to mutual trust and understanding, which are increasingly important to peace and stability in an interdependent world.
To me, the U.S. response to recent natural disasters in Latin America shows an acknowledgement that people-to-people problem-solving is a major component of "21st Century Diplomacy."