“Best Practices” for Foreign Service Bloggers

There are three types of people in the Foreign Service: those who blog, those who don’t blog, and those who are wondering what all the fuss is about. The medium itself is relatively new. When I started my blog back in 2007, there were only a handful of Foreign Service bloggers out there. We blogged under the radar, with little or no attention paid to us by the Department of State or by our colleagues.

I used my blog as a way to keep grandparents and other family members up-to-date on our growing family, but I quickly discovered a broader FS blog community. Before too long, I’d acquired “virtual friends:” Jill (http://theperlmanupdate.blogspot.com), Kolbi, Jen (http://www.dinoiafamily.typepad.com), and others. I grew to rely on my blog colleagues for all sorts of advice and assistance as we traveled the globe together.

As more and more State employees and family members started blogging, however, the Department became concerned. We bloggers began to talk amongst ourselves about whose blog had attracted negative attention, whose spouse had been reprimanded and which bloggers had decided to shutter their blogs. The blogging community grew nervous as talk of State “tigers” –people who are supposedly employed to monitor and discipline bloggers–grew louder.

Some bloggers went so far as to ask: what are the rules? Bloggers grew increasingly frustrated with the arbitrary nature of the process. We don’t think we’re doing anything wrong, yet some of us are being called in and scolded, while others blog in peace. Why is that?

We needed rules. But no one at State wanted to give them to us. It seemed as though they just wanted bloggers to go away.

Look, people are going to blog. More and more and more, you will have employee bloggers, spouse bloggers and even kid bloggers. We’ve built this community, byte by byte, and we turn to each other for advice and support and laughter. We rely on each other, and we’re not going to go away.

Don’t get me wrong: if some senior official gives me a call and tells me that either I take down my blog or my husband loses his job, there isn’t even a question but that my blog will be gone tomorrow. I’m not willing to fight that fight if my family’s livelihood is on the line.

But does that have to be the choice? Why not give us some basic rules, FAM-style, so we know where the lines are drawn?

So here they are: The Rules. Written by bloggers with no departmental clout whatsoever. Let’s call them Blogging Best Practices.

Rule One: Don’t Bite The Hand That Pays You.
All of us, employees, spouses and children alike, represent the United States government every time we walk out our doors. I might be “just” a spouse with an EFM job and not much say-so in the Embassy, but when I’m overseas, to many of my neighbors out in the wide world, I AM the US government. So as a blogger currently posted in Amman, I am not allowed to criticize the work that the Department of State is doing, in Jordan, in the region, in the world, even. That’s not my place. I won’t do it at a dinner party, and I certainly won’t do it on my blog. Doesn’t matter what I think of our position on Palestine: if it differs from the USG-position, I can’t put it on my blog. Even if it’s the same as the USG position, I’m likely going to avoid discussing it, anyway. This is a personal blog, after all, not a government-sanctioned one, so those types of discussions really don’t belong here.

Rule Two: Use the Past Tense.
If you’re going somewhere tonight, don’t tell me about it until tomorrow. It doesn’t make sense to advertise your whereabouts to complete strangers, through your blog or any other means. It’s like cancelling your newspaper before you go on vacation, so no one realizes you’re gone. It’s just safer that way.

Rule Three: Limit the Details.
I might tell you my street is narrow and crowded and full of Land Rovers, but I won’t tell you if it is three streets up from the Embassy, right side, next to the Mexican restaurant. That’s too much detail. I’ll show you photos of my house (assuming it’s presentable), but only from the inside. You won’t see the front of my house. You won’t see photos of my alarm system. You won’t see photos of any of the measures that keep me safe here at post. And speaking of pictures…

Rule Four: No Pictures without Permission.
Don’t post pictures of non-family members without their permission! If your colleagues ask you not to their pictures, don’t do it. And don’t post their names, either. First names are generally okay, but again, with permission! If you’re not sure if they’d like it, don’t put it out there.

Rule Five: No Gossip.
Watch what you say about those colleagues of yours. I, for one, have had the privilege of working with some smart, talented, funny people over the years. (Also some odd ones, but hey: you’ll find those strange birds in any profession. Just don’t call them out on your blog!) Even if what you want to say about someone is a compliment, you really ought not to talk them up without permission.

Rule #Six: If in Doubt, Leave it Out.
Write your post and wait awhile before you hit “publish.” Take a hard look. What do you think? Will you be embarrassed if your boss reads it? If your child’s teacher reads it? If your mother reads it? If you aren’t sure about the post, don’t publish it. Or send it to a blogging friend for a second opinion. If it gives you pause, there’s a good chance it doesn’t belong out there in the blogosphere.

So there you have it: Don’t discuss policy; don’t endanger yourself or others by posting details of upcoming events; don’t post pictures that show the front of your house, or the school, or the car; don’t talk about colleagues; don’t post photos of colleagues without permission.

Whatever you do, don’t stop blogging. Someday, this record you are making of your life in the Foreign Service will be your most valuable souvenir.

Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a Foreign Service spouse and freelance writer whose work has been published in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and the Foreign Service Journal. She blogs at http://emailfromtheembassy.blogspot.com.