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12 Min Read

PJ Crowley’s Advice: Use Social Media to Set Your Own Agenda


  • Use social media to set your own agenda. If your organization has difficulty setting a narrative, turn to social media to get drive engagement on the issues you and your audience care about.
  • To move big ideas, present them in ways that your audience can connect with, appreciate, and ultimately support. How does your idea impact someone? Answering that question will help turn an idea into a narrative.
  • Building a constituency is impossible without communication. To maximize the reach of an idea, use the tools that are readily available at your organization to garner support and broaden impact. The barriers to entry to the communications space are smaller than ever.

Part 2 of 2 – Click here to read Part 1

PJ Crowley served in the Obama Administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and in the Clinton White House as Senior Director of Public Affairs for the National Security Council and Special Assistant to the President. He is now a Fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communications. He spoke with The Communications Network about lessons learned over the course of his lengthy career in high stakes global communications. Follow him on Twitter @PJCrowley.


Sean Gibbons: There were significant challenges with U.S. standing in the world in 2009 when President Obama took office. You and Secretary Clinton and others at the State Department played a significant role in trying to reframe the perceptions of the United States. It also happened at a time that was really interesting in terms of you and your office, in particular, herald in the use of social media as a tool of diplomacy. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened and what you learned?

PJ Crowley: As the assistant secretary and spokesman for the Department of State, I had a traditional megaphone called the Daily Press Briefing. We spent 8 hours preparing for that briefing, would step before a podium at 1:00 or so, 5 days a week, and would communicate on behalf of the United States of America. There were, perhaps, 30 journalists in the room who covered diplomatic issues on a daily basis. Many of them actually sat in the building in Foggy Bottom.

While I would usually come to the podium with something that I wanted to say, for the most part the dynamic of the briefing was set by what their agenda was: the news of the day, something that had just happened, a story that they were pursuing about this country, this problem, this war. I usually came prepared to talk about, say, 25 things and then ended up talking about 10, but that left a lot of information, valuable information, about issues for which the traditional media were less interested. Sadly, we’d always get drawn to the Middle East; we’d always get drawn to the US-China relationship, always get drawn to Europe. Far less would we get drawn to Africa, and when we did, it was usually because there was some sort of a problem.

We started to use social media to get beyond the agenda that the media was setting and just saying that, “Africa’s a very important continent. There are meaningful countries. There are meaningful things going on. Africa itself is advancing in dynamic ways that people don’t appreciate.” We used social media just to move beyond the limits of the Daily Press Briefing and would push out information that we wanted to talk about, but for whatever reason, the media … They were seized upon the news of the day and less about what’s happening tomorrow or the day after.

We were pleasantly surprised that when we would just find ways to push out information, it would find an audience; it would find a home; it would generate a story and generate follow-on coverage, perhaps not in Washington, perhaps at the embassy at the country we were talking about, whether that was Nigeria or South Africa, Zambia, or whatever-have-you. Also, because we live in a 24-hour global news cycle, our press briefing at 1:00 was geared towards our news cycle, but there are lots of other news cycles around the world. So we would try to use social media to push out information that we thought was important early in the morning, middle of the morning, so we could hit news cycles in Europe, sometimes in China. 

We ended the day, once again, doing the same thing. If there was something that we thought was important but nobody asked, we’d push out information near the end of the day, and that, of course, would try to catch the news cycle opening up in Tokyo or in Beijing. So the combination of things that you do that seem to be more traditional, enhanced by social media, enables you to get pretty close to being able to communicate 24 hours a day. If it’s 18-20 hours a day, you’ve expanded your effectiveness; you’ve expanded your reach. We found that social media enabled us to do that. We would not only begin a conversation with real people, but that’s a conversation that media would be prepared to join in, depending on the issue and the location. So it enhanced our ability to communicate on a global basis.

Sean Gibbons: You tweeted. It wasn’t just that you led a team, which was the first of its kind, but you would actually take time and engage on social media as well. Tell me a little bit about that process. 

PJ Crowley: I did. The bureaucracy had mixed views about that. To the extent that, as the assistant secretary, I became a little bit of a celebrity, then I was able to in the two years I was at the State Department gain a following of 50,000 in followers, many in the Middle East. That has its own set of issues, where you might be tweeting about the environment and somebody else will react to it because they’re facing a life and death situation in a civil war somewhere else. In a global media environment it’s not always easy to segment your messaging as you might have been able to before; but, by the same token, the net effect was that we thought it was extremely positive.

Then, because we communicated on a global basis, not only did we encourage individuals to use social media, we encouraged our embassies to use social media, and then we encouraged everyone to tweet in multiple languages. Obviously English is a powerful language, well-known around the world, but your ability to communicate in someone else’s language is important and appreciated. For organizations, particularly those with an international focus, you’ve got very significant communication assets in the organization that you can tap into, and those communications can be powerful and those communications can help you build the kind of constituency that would be valuable to your organization and help advance the issues that are important to you.

Sean Gibbons: You were noted by Chuck Todd as having ‘the tweet of the year.’ Tell me what happened there.

PJ Crowley: Diplomacy is a highly structured, heavily coordinated occupation, and I thought that being able to use social media, but adapt the psychology behind social media … Humor is very effective in social media, so I tried to find ways, where appropriate, to use humor in trying to advance the issues that were important to us.

We had a problem with North Korea. We had many problems with North Korea, but we had at one point two journalists who had been arrested in North Korea. At other points we’d have Americans that would go there for the noblest of reasons and get arrested because they would walk across the border, violating North Korean law. Of course, it’s one of the most neurotic countries on Earth to begin with. So, in August of 2009, President Clinton went to Pyongyang to bring back back two current TV journalists who had been arrested and then Jimmy Carter followed him some months later to bring back an American that had been jailed. He was a missionary; was, again, trying to do something important. North Korea wasn’t interested in that.

As soon as we knew that Jimmy Carter had cleared North Korean air space I hopped online. These were issues where individuals had created a diplomatic challenge for the United States by their actions, and so I tweeted out that, “Americans need to pay attention to State Department travel warnings on North Korea. After all, we only have so many ex-presidents,” and Chuck Todd [of NBC News]  thought that was the best Washington tweet of the year. It beat out Sarah Palin and Snooki for the honor. 

Sean Gibbons: So many of the organizations that make up  The Communications Network are trying to create systemic change. How do you play the long game?

PJ Crowley: You and I are sitting here in Washington, D. C. Washington, D. C. does not have the greatest reputation in the country right now; but, by the same time, we sit in the political capital of the country and the political capital, in many respects, of the world. There are lots of people here in Washington, D. C. who are trying that very thing: How can you undertake systemic change, big things that translate and have big impacts for lots and lots of people here in this country or around the world. Any good politician will tell you you have to take a policy idea, and then to advance that idea you have to put it in terms that the average American or the average citizen of another country can appreciate, connect with, and then support.

So, it is about taking your big idea and then figuring out: What does that mean for the average person? How does that change the reality of one person, then a street block, then a community, then a city, then a state, then a country, then a world? It all gets down to finding the right lens through which to tell the story about the big idea. It’s converting an idea into a narrative to create the political support that you need to move from an idea to adoption to impact. The best politicians are the ones that find that story and then can tell it effectively. Organizations are the same way.

The great thing is, in doing the wonderful work that social sector organizations do, they’re out there in a village. They’re out there in a small town. They can see the potential. Now develop a story around that potential and then find ways to tell it. 

Sean Gibbons: For those organizations that have not invested in communications, what would you say to them? If you’re the foundation that says, “We make grants, but we don’t tend to earmark them for communications efforts.” To those non-profits that have limited resources and aren’t able to make big investments in communications, what do you say to them? Is there a benefit to investing in communications?

PJ Crowley:  I think there is benefit to developing a capability. It doesn’t have to be a significant investment. We’re sitting here talking in the presence of an iPhone.  iPhone is the most powerful communication device in the world today and is readily accessible; but then, you can scale up from there. If you can do video, and a quality video … We all do Skype. Skype gives you an ability to communicate. So I think you can develop a communication capability with the tools that are readily available within most organizations now. It used to be you had to buy a high-quality television camera to get into the communication space. Now there’s no cost and no barrier to entering the communication space that allows you to communicate. Now you just have to figure out what you want to communicate.

I do think making sure that there is a communication dimension to promoting an idea is very important. As people are looking for ways of investing in big ideas, making sure that communication is a dimension of the proposal, I think, is what will separate the things that can have impact.

Sean Gibbons: For those folks who are skeptical about the value of communication, what would you say to them? … in other words, “We don’t need a communications director at our organization,” or “We don’t need to set aside time to do this work. Our organization is comfortable sitting behind the curtain.” What would you say to them? 

PJ Crowley: Someone needs to be paying attention to the communication challenge. Ultimately we are talking about taking an idea and finding ways to develop that. That means necessarily that you have to build a constituency behind what you’re trying to do. To build a constituency behind what you’re trying to do, you have to communicate. If you don’t, your constituency will be small. Impact will come in developing a good idea in a small space and then finding a way to expand the application of the idea into a larger space. Communication is the connection that takes you from a good idea with small impact into a good idea with major impact.


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