Posted by: blackvector | April 23, 2009

Bringing Social Networking To Iraq? Could Work: In Context of Iraqi Culture, Not Ours

State Dept Social Networking Delegation in Iraq.First off, do not get me wrong here, I applaud social networking and what it can deliver and fully support integration into existing processes for Public Affairs/Public Relations/Public Diplomacy and this group is a step in the right direction. However, one thing that has always bugged me is how we go into the overseas environment and attempt to take Western processes into other cultures. Having spent several consecutive years living in Europe and deploying all over, I could see firsthand  how we fail in getting the message out to a foreign audience. The state department has taken a delegation of “social networking” types into Iraq to “provide conceptual input as well as ideas on how new technologies can be used to build local capacity, foster greater transparency and accountability, build upon anti-corruption efforts, promote critical thinking in the classroom, scale-up civil society, and further empower local entities and individuals by providing the tools for network building.” All that is lofty press release jargon for something, but i’m not sure what. One of the executives is @jack, co-founder of the social networking site He has Tweeted his experiences, to include imagery from his trip, and shared it with his followers — pretty cool.

In a previous post I discussed how Social Media is a buzz word. It is not a panacea to fix everything. Bringing social networking to the Iraqis is not going to save them from anything. In fact, one has to wonder how they can access social networking or if the infrastructure was in place to do it yet (for example, no 100% reliable electrical grid yet). I am sure some are, but is it the academics, politicos and elites only? How does the everyday citizen get his information? Whatever the case may be, I do think there is a place for social networking in the new Iraq. The key is for the effort to be developed by the Iraqi culture for its use — not modeled after American communication trends and theories. During one of my graduate classes at the University of Oklahoma, Intercultural Communication, one of the points Dr. Clemencia Rodriguez kept discussing was how when we developed communication programs for foreign audiences we must do so within the context of the cultures, by using the culture’s idioms and customs of communicating, not ours. Dr. Rodriguez places a high importance on the need to understand Intercultural Communication and rightly so. Her thought is tied to the concept of the global village (which I believe social networking has a key stake in), she says;

“Never before did our world resemble so closely what Marshall McLuhan called ‘the global village.’ The economic functions around transnational corporations and international markets; peoples from different parts of the world migrate — for different reasons — to other parts of the world; the work-force has become diverse in many different ways: people of different ages, genders, ethnicity, race, religions, languages, have to live and work together. All this means that never before has good intercultural communication been so valuable.”

We absolutely must address how we communicate with our audiences (stakeholders) both in the home station and deployed environment. More often than not, Dr. Rodriguez’s point is spot on, the communities PA practitioners target are no longer of one nationality or another, they are a blend of nationalities — whether overseas or in the United States. Our communication practices, using traditional methods as well as social networking will still deliver no effect if the message and meaning are not framed within these cultural contexts. In other words, not thinking what would be good for us in terms of communicating an idea, but asking the people of that culture how they would do it and what is good for them. Would Iraqis even Twitter or FaceBook? Probably. Shortly after the fall of the Hussein government, the proliferation of satellite dishes took off, dubbed in some media circles the national flower of Iraq. People wanted access to information: information that was previously controlled. Social networking does offer Iraqis this access to unrestricted information.

Social networking does offer access, but it does not cure the delivery of a message no one wants to hear (by this I mean a poorly written message); or the delivery of a message in the wrong cultural context. As we move more into Phase 0 type of operations, Public Affairs must shift from reactive to a more proactive and culturally-centric form of outreach in the deployed environment. I happen to agree with Matt Armstrong, from, that PA officers and SNCOs should probably be trained more like Public Diplomacy officers rather than Journalists.

Along with the technology group that went to Baghdad there should have been experts in Iraqi interpersonal communication. Integrate the way Iraqis communicate with each other and the access social networking can provide, and I see a winning combination. Do only one or the other, or worse – design it from an American viewpoint – and you can only have a failure to communicate.



  1. Thank you for your perceptive comments.

  2. You have identified an age-old problem from a PA perspective and one that “operators” care very little about. Until that crowd learns the value of soft power over firepower, its not going to change. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few out there that get it, but they are rare.

  3. Again, spot on. Intercultural communication theory and application is a major factor. Understanding and operating within cultural norms and sensitivities is imperative. We cannot afford to “upset the tea cart” by boldly going forth without a complete understanding of who we’re speaking to, how their culture functions, and their modes of receiving information. If we “jam” it down their throats via social media or otherwise, we aggravate the situation and alienate our intended audience = mission failure. Keep up the great work!

  4. PA’s job is to craft, package and deliver information in a way that audiences can understand. We have done an exceptional job IO’ing ourselves (examples: core values, “fly/flight/win!” ditty, 0013 campaign, etc) and our themes, messages and talking points, of course, resonate beautifully with commanders (who approve aforementioned messages).

    The nut we have yet to crack is foreign audiences, particularly ones that don’t fully appreciate the role we play in their communities: From Okinawa to Diwaniya, the traditional approach misses the mark time after time. It’s time to at least TEST out a different way of “communicatin’ with fur’ners.”

    Scant chance social media is THE answer, but it may be AN answer. By democratizing (as opposed to managing) the power of communication, perhaps we’ll be reminded that information flows two ways …and that’s a message that will transcend all cultural boundaries.

  5. Understanding your audience has always been a key to effective communication. So why are we addressing it more now in the social media realm than we do with our other forms of communication? And what are we doing to bring that same thought back into our traditional means of communication. I disagree that we have not cracked the foreign audience nut as communicators. It is more like we keep forgetting how we cracked it the 1st time. We don’t learn well.
    As you have stated time and again, Social Media is not the answer in itself, it is a tool, and only effective where: 1) it is consistently available, 2) it is accepted within the culture 3) you have something to say worth hearing (reading) 4) you have the resources to maintain it. It has a few benefits over other tools. It treats everyone as equals. It can be real time announcement, continuous real-time coverage, delayed broadcast, follow-up, Q&A, audio, video, text, etc.It has weaknesses. 1) Dependent upon 3rd party business & equipment (cell networks, ISPs, webhost, etc). 2) Limited by location and geography 3) I am sure we can all come up with more.
    But this is more than opportunity to use a new tool, it is the also a way to assess where our weakness was with traditional tools. By putting NM under the microscope it should force PAs to look very hard at their traditional means of communication. Even if Twitter and every social network falls flat in two years, we should be getting major take-aways from the time we are investing in attempting to make NM/SM an effective tool.

  6. Nice piece. Absolutely right that (a) technology and SM do not replace the core requirements of basic human interaction and communication (b) cultural and sociological nuances/differences must be heeded if SM is to be used as a communication platform in foreign environments (and failure has to be considered)
    In developing and enhancing civil society in post-conflict and developing nations, the use of SM, in manners fully coherent with local norms, may significantly balance the information environment, allowing access to information by all levels of society. If we consider SM to be a useful communicative tool for our open and democratic societies, at least it should be given opportunities to enhance others heading in that direction.

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