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Op-Ed: Voice of America can learn from State Dept. about social media

The U.S. State Department is not a news or journalistic organization. It never was and never will be. But State Department public diplomacy specialists could teach Voice of America a few technical things about journalism in the digital age. VOA aspires to be a news organization engaging audiences abroad with the help of such social media platforms as Facebook or YouTube, but these days VOA often fails under its dysfunctional management.

VOA’s social media impact on such an important news day as the one that brought the announcement of the nuclear agreement framework involving the United States, Iran and other major world powers, was completely inconsequential compared not only to Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia’s RT, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, and Iran’s Press TV. VOA’s social media impact was also inconsequential, at least in Persian and English, even when compared to State Department’s non-journalistic, public diplomacy outreach through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

VOA language services, including English, Persian, and Russian, were well behind State Department in speed of posting on social media. State Department’s public diplomacy specialists were far better in quickly providing vernacular content which foreign audiences were most interested in. They were getting many more views, Likes and Comments from Facebook users for State Department’s public diplomacy posts than VOA was getting for its news reports.

President Obama’s statement after the announcement of the nuclear deal framework with Iran was a good example of how the U.S. State Department vastly outdistanced on social media the Voice of America Persian Service, also known as the Persian News Network or PNN. While what State Department Farsi speaking specialists posted online was not what could be described as objective journalistic news content, they definitely used a few important journalistic and social media technical skills to achieve impact which after many years of trying still have not been developed at the Voice of America under its current leadership.

U.S. State Department has what could be described as a public diplomacy website in English and in Persian called the “Virtual Embassy of the United States, Tehran – Iran.” According to its “About” page, the website was created to counter attempts by the Iranian government “to control the content of Iranian media, limit access to the internet, monitor communication, and jam broadcasts from outside Iran.” “It was this desire for dialogue that led us to create the USAdarFarsi Twitter account and Facebook page earlier this year,” the State Department explains.

First of all, the Virtual U.S. Embassy, Tehran – Iran, posted on Facebook the video of President Obama’s statement much faster than the Voice of America Persian Service, PNN. This is one journalistic skill which has largely disappeared at the Voice of America under its present management. News organizations that cannot report quickly on major news developments affecting their own country and other countries can forget about having any significant impact. International audiences will go elsewhere for such news, as they did in this case. Russia’s RT, China’s CCTV, Al Jazeera, BBC, Deutsche Welle, even the U.S. State Department were the clear winners on social media on this important news story in English language reporting and in many cases also in Persian language and Russian language reporting.

There was nothing about President Obama’s remarks that required further checking for accuracy. They simply had to be reported. State Department posted on Facebook President Obama video with Persian subtitles on Thursday at 2:42 p.m. ET.

Voice of America Persian Service posted on Facebook a link to its online report, which included President Obama’s video, on Thursday at 11:03 p.m. ET, which was 10 hours later than the State Department’s Facebook post.

State Department posted on YouTube President Obama video with Persian subtitles late Thursday evening.

The Voice of America Persian Service did not post its video on YouTube until the next day, Friday, April 3, at about 2 p.m. ET.

How did the U.S. State Department and the Voice of America Persian Service do with their Facebook posts in terms of audience engagement?

As of 1:01 p.m. ET Friday, State Department’s Facebook post in Persian with the video of President Obama’s statement had 2,629 Likes and 139 Comments. As of 7:01 p.m. ET, it had 39,156 views. A slightly earlier U.S. State Department Persian post on Obama without the video had 5,000 Likes and 302 Comments.

As of 12:10 p.m. ET Friday, State Department’s Facebook post in English on President Obama delivering remarks on the nuclear deal with Iran had 4,300 Likes, 1,100 Comments, and 136,000 views.

As of 12:29 p.m.ET Friday, Voice of America Persian Service Facebook post on President Obama and Iran had only 301 Likes and 8 Comments.

As of 12:31 p.m. ET Friday, BBC Persian Service Facebook post on Obama’s statement had 6,900 Likes and 259 Comments.

As of 12:59 p.m. ET Friday, Deutsche Welle (DW) Persian Service Facebook post on the nuclear deal framework had 3,800 Likes and 91 Comments.

As of 12:11 p.m. ET Friday, Voice of America English News Facebook post on the Iran deal had only 285 Likes and 9 Comments.

As of 12:14 p.m. ET Friday, Russia’s RT English Facebook post on President Obama’s statement had 2,000 Likes and 201 Comments.

As of 12:37 p.m. ET Friday, China’s CCTV English Facebook post on the nuclear agreement had 2,900 Likes and 10 Comments.

As of 2:28 p.m. ET Friday, Al Jazeera English Facebook post on Obama and iran had 2,400 Facebook Likes and 239 Comments.

As of 1:40 p.m. ET Friday, Iran’s Press TV Facebook post on President Obama’s statement had 752 Likes and 72 Comments.

And this final update, as of 7:28 p.m. ET Friday, BBC English Facebook post on the nuclear deal agreement framework with Iran has 4,500 Facebook Likes and 306 Comments. Voice of America Facebook English News post from yesterday still has only 295 Likes and 9 Comments.

Voice of America Persian Service Facebook post from yesterday still has only 341 Likes and 10 Comments compared to 7,300 Likes and 267 Comments for the BBC Persian Service post from yesterday, 2,900 Facebook Likes, 152 Comments and 39,700 views for the U.S. State Department Persian Facebook post from yesterday and 5,000 Likes and 302 Comments for another U.S. State Department Persian post from yesterday as of this moment, 7:28 p.m. ET, Friday, April 3, 2015.

These numbers speak for themselves. The bipartisan oversight federal board, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), needs to step in and reform Voice of America to bring it up to the digital age and to restore its journalistic skills and purpose — accuracy, objectivity, comprehensiveness, speed, and impact.

U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration need to cooperate in a bipartisan effort to eliminate the bureaucratic dysfunction within the BBG, the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and VOA. While what the State Department does in the area of public diplomacy can be quite good, the Voice of America has a much broader and much more important journalistic mission. Its fact-based and objective journalism should inform foreign audiences not only what the White House and the State Department say, but also what Americans and others think about U.S. policy toward Iran and how they debate such issues.

Only through such journalism, can the world learn from VOA about American democracy and how U.S. foreign policy is made. But if because of mismanagement a news organization cannot master some very basic journalistic and social media reporting skills, its chances of having any impact in the digital age are practically non-existent.

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