When Philip J. Crowley was nominated to be assistant U.S. secretary of state for public affairs two years ago, the first thing his daughter said was: "So, are you gonna tweet?"
Crowley: "Am I gonna what?"
Now Crowley tweets almost every day. In an effort called "21st-century statecraft," he and the entire State Department have embraced Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.
In Crowley's personal Twitter account, @PJCrowley, he's adopted more than just the medium. He's also adopted the attitude: funny, snarky, dismissive, perplexed, blunt.
"Hey - 140 characters sharpens the mind," he says from his office in Washington. "It's the perfect medium for a good one-liner."
First and foremost, of course, it's diplomacy. Some tweets track Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's schedule or remarks. Some outline official policy. Others bat down rumors. Crowley shoots down a wayward report in the British paper the Telegraph: "One word response: Bunk!" Other rumors say that, if extradited to the United States, WikiLeaks guy Julian Assange might be held at Guantanamo Bay. Crowley tweets: "The claim by the lawyer for #JulianAssange that his client could go to #Guantanamo is pure legal fantasy. Save it for the movie." Oh, snap!
(By the way, those # signs are called "hashtags." They're a way to track and tag selected terms in a post.)
In 2009, Bill Clinton went to North Korea to secure the release of two Americans. When Jimmy Carter did the same in August to help free American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, Crowley tweeted: "Americans should heed our #travel warning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents."
That earned him the tongue-in-tweet Chuvannah Award for Best Tweet of 2010 from Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie of MSNBC's The Daily Rundown. Crowley beat out harsh competition: Sarah Palin (for a "refudiate" tweet) and Snooki of Jersey Shore (for her odd, snuggly tweets to Sen. John McCain).
"I think they gave it to me," Crowley says, "because they were surprised I have a sense of humor and I'm not afraid to use it."
("A little sass from the State Department?!" chirps Guthrie.)
It was "about a year ago," Crowley says, that the digital-media staff at State "really started getting on me" to start using Twitter. "But it wasn't until one day when I saw that Hugo Chavez tweets now - that's when I said, 'If he's doing it, I have to do it.' "
Alec J. Ross, Hillary Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, calls 21st-century statecraft "100 percent successful." He says by e-mail that "the use of social media has skyrocketed" since Clinton announced the initiative.
The main aim is to widen the topics and the audience. "We're trying to break the stereotype of diplomacy, of pin-striped women and men, everything formal," Crowley says.
Ross says it lets State "connect with groups and large numbers of individuals who historically would not have a connection to the senior ranks of the State Department."
He adds, "We know the connection is happening because of the growth of the audience . . . and the geographic diversity of the audience."
Ross is a master of the media universe, and his personal twitter account, @AlecJRoss, had 325,415 followers as of Monday, but Crowley's not doing too badly: He had 19,108 followers and growing fast. Crowley reports lots of response, much of it as blunt as his tweets: "You can scroll down and see people have very definite opinions."
He calls his audience "journalists, activists, diplomats - anybody who wants to talk foreign policy." And the younger side, here and worldwide. "What's driving Tunisia and Egypt is the younger, more educated demographic," he says. "You're seeing that around the world."
Crowley tweeted assiduously during the Egyptian uprisings. Whereas some U.S. envoys, such as former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, wandered a little off-campus in their remarks, Crowley focused squarely on issues of peace and human rights, as on Feb. 2: "The perpetrators of today's violence in #Egypt must be held accountable, and the government should tell its supporters to eschew violence."
"With only 140 characters, you can, shall we say, lose nuance?" Crowley says with a laugh. "But it's a tremendous tool, and it's been a lot of fun."
Contact staff writer John Timpane
at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org