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The Iranian Nuclear Deal As Digital Communications Case Study

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You probably heard about the new deal reached between the United States, its international partners and the government of Iran regarding the latter nation’s contentious nuclear program in November. However you may feel about the politics underlying this development, there’s no doubt that it signaled a new approach to public relations for the government of Hassan Rouhani, who took office promising to improve his nation’s reputation by opening new lines of communication with the West.

Last week we spoke with Jarrod Bernstein of MWW—whose past titles include Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Acting Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs for United States Department of Homeland Security—about this event and the ways in which social media has reshaped politics as we know it.

Has social changed the political messaging game? 

“Yes. The way that the pundits were critiquing [the Iran deal] in real-time and even ahead of time and the speed at which the White House and other actors have to respond to incoming criticism has changed dramatically and has the potential to alter the way foreign policy is conducted.

This is the first generation of diplomats that’s going to have to account for that [reality] in the way they conduct diplomacy…it will probably be some period of time before any actor really demonstrates mastery of it.

Imagine if someone had been live-tweeting the D-Day invasion!”

How has the new Iranian government used social to broadcast its message of “moderation” to the world?

“You certainly never saw the Iranian president retweet our Secretary of State in the past.

The Iranian regime has recognized the value of publicity. [Social media] has given them an outlet that they wouldn’t have otherwise because of their isolation. It allows them to be their own spokesperson to the larger world without having to respond to some of the tougher questions…but I don’t think that it changes the underlying realities.”

Is this the Iranian version of reputation management?

“I don’t know what they call PR in Iran, but there are certainly people thinking and worrying about the same sorts of issues that a firm would be worried about.

They’re not just selling [the deal and their new willingness to negotiate] to the larger world; they’re selling it to a domestic audience. For Rouhani, it’s as much about providing some stimulation to his own economy and showing he can deliver as it is about the nuclear program. He is taking a page out of the Western playbooks by using Twitter to gain a domestic following and get the message out there.”

How has the relationship between political PR and traditional media changed in the digital age?

“[Social messaging feeds like Twitter], coupled with using social to link to your own owned content,” like the White House linking to live feeds of the President’s speeches, “[Allows you] to be ready to not only announce your rollout plan but also to have [an alternate] plan if the news breaks in a time or fashion other than what you want.”

But some things haven’t changed at all:

“The only real ‘scoop’ [in this story] is that the State Dept. had been talking to the Iranians for six months in Oman—and that was broken by a traditional reporter.”

Can politicians now control the message even more completely than in the past?

“I think that people at the end of the day want unbiased commentary from news outlets. What [this digital trend] does do is allow viewers to see more of the raw data than they had in the past. Instead of watching press conferences, people who are really interested can go a level deeper. This is a good thing as people are free to form their own judgment.”

Opinions of the deal differed wildly based on political affiliation. What’s your take on this positioning?

“A senior White House official used to say: ‘We’re in a pay-for-performance business. People pay us to perform, they don’t pay us to tell you we’re going to perform.’

I don’t know if people were paying attention, but this is what Obama said in his address. This is what he’s been saying all along. Either [the Iranian government] is going to do what they said they were going to do or not, and the rest of the world will have to react. No amount of social media is going to change that.”

To further prove this point, today The Verge notes that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is on Twitter too—and he’s not nearly as friendly to the West as Rouhani. The revelation is particularly striking in light of the fact that most Iranian citizens are still legally forbidden from using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

(Photo via AFP/BBC)

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