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How the Key transcription gaffe got fixed by State

by Philip Lyth

Communication.  I love it. Especially effective, two-way, online communication involving elected officials and their staff on one hand,  and real people.  Sometimes it needs some effort but it works.

I spend a bit of time talking about it and encouraging it,  to the point that I measure the number of MPs using Twitter  (How many?  you ask  -  71 in the last week out of 121 MPs.)  Twitter is my medium of choice because it is open, direct, and you can hear the authentic voice of the person. In 140 characters there is little room for dissembling or prevaricating either.  Yet the ability to add links allows for long form debate to happen too.

It was great yesterday morning to see two real-life examples, one here in Wellington and one from slightly further afield.

Yet  it was a rather large surprise when Alec Ross weighed in just after 9.30am to ask if he could help fix a problem caused by his government.  As in the United States of America.  Now I’d heard of him.  Alec is Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation.  Every US Ambassador is trained in social media by Alec before taking up a posting. Alec had been in New Zealand last week as part of Project (R)evolution conference, a collaboration between AUT University, SocialMedia NZ and the US Embassy.  I knew he’d played a key role in Barack Obama’s social media and online campaign on the Way to the White House.  He was instrumental in generating the tidal wave of microdonations for the 2008 campaign.

@alecjross 9.33am @philiplyth Your tweets got my attention. What did we do wrong vis a vis transcription? Tell me so we can fix.

So why did he get in touch?  (I have no idea how he found me.) And how did he do it from Washington DC within 75 minutes of my first tweet on the subject?

Early yesterday morning,  Russell Brown blogged in Hard News,  taking issue with Prime Minister John Key apparently giving an open-ended commitment to fight alongside the United States in any and all future conflicts.  I say apparently.  That was based on the US State Department publishing a transcript of Key’s remarks in a joint appearance with Hillary Clinton at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands last weekend.

Russell had not unreasonably assumed that the State Department could be relied upon to publish an authentic transcript,  but not so.  With help from New Zealand journalists who supplied a digital soundfile from their dictaphones,  John Key’s actual statement was clearer.  (There must be someone in Washington DC right now who is feeling very small and wishing they could crawl into a mousehole to hide from the world.)  Take a look at the State Department’s original paragraph,  and my correction  (emphasis added.)

Secretary Clinton and I discussed the broad range of issues in the Asia Pacific region as we look towards the APEC summit in Russia in around 10 days time. New Zealand warmly supports the United States rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific, and we welcome the opportunity to cooperate with the U.S. in the next conflicts. We discussed our ongoing (inaudible) along side a number of other countries (inaudible) partnership agreement. Secretary Clinton and I share the goal of securing a high quality, (inaudible) free trade agreement, would be a significant (inaudible) countries involved, indeed to the region as a whole.


Secretary Clinton and I discussed a broad range of issues in the Asia Pacific region as we look towards the APEC summit in Russia in around 10 days time. New Zealand warmly supports the United States rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific, and we welcome the opportunity to cooperate further.  In that context, we discussed our ongoing efforts to negotiate along side a number of other countries a trans-Pacific partnership agreement. Secretary Clinton and I share the goal of securing a high quality, 21st-century free trade agreement, would be of significant benefit to the countries involved, indeed to the region as a whole.

 Some of us,  myself included,  began discussing matters both in the comments section of Hard News and on Twitter.  These included journalists, mostly clarifying, with one taking umbrage.

Because I’m the sort of guy who believes that people deserve to know they are being talked about,  I rang the good folk at the US Embassy in Wellington,  and talked to Stephen Johns.  He assured me someone would be on to the apparent transcription error.  (And the big error has been fixed.)  So when Alec Ross got in touch I was able to tell him the Embassy was onto it.  He sent a followup tweet as well,  making a point that is good for all of us to be reminded of occasionally.

9.53am @philiplyth - good, thanks. Tweet me if all not rectified. And re filters, as I tell our ambassadors: you have only 1 mouth, but 2 ears.

How the heck did Alec Ross come to tweet me?  I have no idea.  At 8.32am I had noted the irony of the State Department making a monumental blunder when in a NZ Herald profile, Alec  had said that the choice of a specific word has repercussions.

I noted above that Twitter is open.  I did mention Alec in one of my tweets, but not by his Twitter handle, @AlecJRoss.  I’ve wracked my brains to see what,  out of all the millions of tweets flying around the world, could have brought me to his attention or the attention of an awesome filter. I checked his tweets and mentions of him.   I still have no idea.  Alec modestly demurs possessing superpowers, saying:

9.58am @philiplyth Not omnipotent. Attentive.

That is still impressive.  And the timing was too  -  his first tweet to me was at 5.33pm daylight saving time in Washington DC.

Now, I promised you a Wellington example.  Michael “Koz” Koziarski is a software developer and partner at  software studio Southgate Labs. He tweeted his frustration at trying to ring Inland Revenue:

@nzkoz 10:07am How long will the IRD keep pretending that everyone has a land-line? Do they also require filing of tax returns on parchment with wax seal?

A few minutes later, Revenue Minister Peter Dunne tweeted  about IRD’s phones:

@PeterDunneMP 10:17am IRD had quietish week last week - about 78,000 phone calls with majority of service standards on priority and general queues met.

It seemed appropriate to immediately fire Michael’s question to Peter,  and to his credit there was a reply within minutes:

@PeterDunneMP 10:25am @philiplyth @nzkoz @nzben reason partially historic, partially technological, and partially legal. Change is coming.

So the point of this column?  That it is possible to engage government(s) by online communication.  After all, they are all made of people who put their trousers on one leg at a time.  There is some value in knowing how to go about it, but that is another story.

 And Alec Ross?  Today I learned he is a family guy, living in Baltimore with three children.  He had tweeted that one of a daughter asked him to bring back a hobbit from New Zealand.  I hope she got a nice present when he returned home.

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