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Guidelines for Official Writing
The following is AFSA’s General Guidance on Public Communication as laid out in the FAM for Active-Duty and Retirees (State/USAID).
Updated December 4, 2015
Guidance to Active-Duty:
Read the Existing Regulations. The current regulations regarding public communication and the use of social media can be found in 3 FAM 4170 "Review of Public Speaking, Teaching, Writing, and Media Engagement" and 5 FAM 790 “Using Social Media.” These regulations address public communication, i.e. speaking, writing, social media, etc., carried out in your official or personal capacity.
Do Not Divulge Classified, Private, or Confidential Information. Here is where many people run afoul of the regulations. You know what’s classified, but be sure not to divulge any information that includes confidential or personally identifiable information either. Examples of these include but are not limited to visa cases, information about other individuals, or classified information that is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure (for example, linking to WikiLeaks.)
Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee. Even though you may be speaking in your personal capacity, be aware that the public still may not differentiate between your official and private views. If your public communications are on a topic of “Departmental concern,” not only should you use a disclaimer, as described in 3 FAM 4176, but your public communications must be reviewed by the Department. “Departmental concern” is defined in 3 FAM 4713 as “pertaining to current U.S. foreign policy or the Department’s mission (including policies, programs, operations or activities of the Department of State or USAID), or which reasonably may be expected to affect the foreign relations of the United States.”
The review offices and timeframes are explained just below:
3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices (FRO)
|Agency||Employees||Final Review Office (FRO)|
|State||Employees in US & COMs||Bureau of Public Affairs (PA)*|
|State||Employees abroad (non-COM)||Chief of Mission (COM) or Designee|
|USAID||Employees in US||Legislative & Public Affairs (LPA)|
|USAID||Employees abroad||COM or designee with concurrence of LPA|
Right to Proceed or Hold. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication until they receive written notice to proceed from the FRO. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the FRO has not provided a response, of any kind, the employee may use, issue, or publish the materials that have been submitted for review.
|Intended Public Communication||Review Timeframe|
|Books, Manuscripts, and other publications of considerable length||30 working days|
|Articles, papers and other writings of a highly specialized nature||20 working days|
|Other papers or articles, including online publications||15 working days|
|Notification of a planned speaking engagement or other appearance||8 working days|
|Speeches, remarks, talking points, or notes for appearances||5 working days|
|Informal blog posting||5 working days|
|Other social media postings||2 working days|
Use Good Judgment. We can’t emphasize this enough – what happens on the internet, stays on the internet. All forms of human communication require good judgment and tact. When in doubt, leave it out.
Contact Us If You Have Problems. If you are an AFSA member and are approached by management or Diplomatic Security regarding your public communication, to include your use of social media, be sure to contact us so that we can assist you.
Guidance to Retirees:
The Foreign Service Agencies do encourage you to get out there and share your story. The guidance to be aware of, when sharing your story, is contained in 3 FAM 4200. The two most important rules to remember are:
- Do not disclose classified information
- Do not use information obtained from “official Government records or documents” that came to you while you were active duty, for personal gain.
“Official Government records and documents” does not typically include your email but does include records containing PII (like John Doe’s birthday, address, employee evaluation) and, of course, documents containing information that is still classified.
If you have any doubt about whether you can share certain information, you can submit a draft copy of your intended public communication to the Office of Information Programs and Services, Global Information Services, Bureau of Administration (A/GIS/IPS). The State Department will happily furnish information upon request.
Lastly, AFSA is here for you if you have any questions!