Is it really possible to explain the policy priorities of an institution with 19,000 employees, a $27 billion budget and 250 embassies, consulates and other diplomatic stations worldwide in 140 characters or less?
If there were one person who could shoulder the task, it would be Victoria Esser, the first person to hold the title of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs for Digital Strategy for the U.S. Department of State. Esser, a 1999 graduate of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, is the point person for making sure “Tweeting” ambassadors engage through relevant content, “YouTubing” diplomats stay on message and Facebook status updates by envoys help advance the goals of the United States government.
“It’s a challenge and a privilege,” says Esser. “I get to wake up every day and work at the center of our foreign policy issues.”
In the newly established position, Esser is charged with creating and managing the digital strategy for the State Department, which includes overseeing the department’s official social media platforms, broadcast operations and its website. It’s an outgrowth, she says, of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dubbed “21st Century Statecraft.”
“That’s a fancy way of suggesting that we’re using technology, networks and innovation to advance U.S. interests around the world,” she says. “Technology enables people to have a direct and real-time voice in the policy conversation, with one another and with their governments.”
Esser travels outside the country about a quarter of the time, but the rest of it is spent in Washington working with a 45-member team developing strategies for digital policy making.
To excel in this position, she says, “You need to be able to synthesize lots of complicated information at the intersection of policy, press and digital media. You need to understand the media environment, understand the issues and understand the landscape of the world, and then put that all together in a package,” she says, “at warp speed—and, yes, sometimes in 140 characters.”
Esser accepted this challenge at the U.S. Department of State in September 2011 after several years in the private sector working in public relations and strategic communications. Before taking the position, she was a managing director for the Glover Park Group—a major public affairs company in Washington, D.C.—and before that was vice president of Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery, a strategic communications company. Esser earned a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from Fletcher in 1999.
Esser says she did face a learning curve adjusting to working in government, particularly in dealing with the bureaucratic setup of the State Department and the government in general. And it has taken her time to get up to speed on the sheer breadth of policy issues that the State Department is constantly grappling with. She attributes her ability to deal with it all in no small part to her time at Fletcher.
“The coursework that Fletcher offers in international policy, economics, international law, negotiation, how to approach or tackle challenges from an interdisciplinary angle; that’s what helps me every day,” she says.
Her coursework in international negotiation was particularly useful, she says.
“Negotiation teaches you how you go about achieving a goal when you’re working with people with a different world view, different goals, different desires,” she says, “and how to work with someone with a different world view and get to an outcome that works for you.”
--Mike Eckel, MALD 13 candidate