With Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools coming to the fore as public diplomacy tools, you might be surprised to know that a relatively old-fashioned technology – text messaging – is a favored vehicle for outreach from the Voice of America. VOA has been expanding the use of SMS technology to deliver news and information to its audience worldwide. The growing use of mobile phone technology in developing countries, especially in Africa, has made it possible for VOA to reach people directly. VOA is using SMS to deliver public health information, monitor elections, and alert people to breaking news.
In some cases, SMS technology can even help VOA interact with foreign citizens on events as they are happening. In Zimbabwe, for example, VOA used funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to launch an SMS service prior to Zimbabwe’s elections. VOA provided news bulletins twice a day. But the relationship with listeners was not a one-way street: Zimbabweans replied via text message with tips and information on the elections. Within two weeks time the service had 20,000 subscribers and was heading towards 50,000 subscribers when it had to be terminated for lack of funding (funding was available only for the period of Zimbabwe’s elections).
Sending out thousands of text messages is not cheap, and VOA risks alienating subscribers who may need to pay for incoming messages. But cost is not the only impediment to expansion. According to Joan Mower, the VOA’s Director of Public Affairs, the VOA would like to create an SMS service for Afghanistan. Such a service is technically feasible, but “the Afghan government and the telephone companies say they want to review all messages in advance, which is unacceptable to VOA,” she said.
Still, the possibility of an unfriendly reaction from foreign governments has hardly stopped VOA’s SMS mission in its tracks. The agency has begun to develop partnerships with mobile phone companies that will enable them to send SMS messages globally at low expense. For example, VOA recently tested and will soon launch a new service in partnership with Silicon Valley-based SMS Media Group. The company has arrangements with hundreds of mobile phone services worldwide, with messages supported by phone-based advertising. This partnership will make it financially and technologically feasible for VOA to deliver SMS messages worldwide. Ms. Rebecca McMenamin, VOA’s New Media Director, says that VOA is also working with carriers such as Nokia to have them include VOA content in their phones. For example, Nokia cellphone users in China can subscribe to a VOA-sponsored application that downloads an English “word-of-the-day” as a free service.
But with other technological changes on the horizon, Ms. McMenamin says that “VOA views SMS as a transitional technology.” Web-enabled mobile devices are becoming more commonplace in underdeveloped countries, VOA is preparing for the day when more people worldwide will browse the web from their phones. Nevertheless, the expectation is that even as smartphone technology spreads, SMS will remain a relevant technology.
Ms. Mower says that “SMS works well for VOA in targeted campaigns” in different regions, giving the example of a popular radio program in Mozambique on HIV/AIDS. Mozambicans send text messages with HIV/AIDS-related questions to the program’s host. In India, the Hindi News Channel, which broadcasts VOA stories, uses SMS messages to subscribers to promote VOA headlines and programs. However, in Uzbekistan, where the government tightly controls the news media, SMS is used to deliver VOA news by subscription to mobile phones. Urdu language SMS service is also being used in conjunction with VOA’s new Pakistan service.
While SMS technology is a limited tool, it is going to continue to be an important one for VOA to get its message out. The challenge for VOA is finding the right mix in terms of cost, technology, and audience needs. But it looks like texting will continue to be a part of VOA’s outreach to the world.