A Conversation in Manila: a social media event with US Sec. of State Hillary Clinton

It’s not every day that I get the chance to be in the presence of someone like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. So when I found out that I was one of the bloggers invited to grace the social media event which was being hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Manila in cooperation with GMA News TV, I jumped at the chance to be there.

We arrived early. People were not allowed yet into the main hall where the “conversation” was to be held because Secret Service people were sweeping the room. So we waited at the ground floor of the National Museum, the venue, with other bloggers like Juned, Noemi and Brian.

U.S. Embassy staff manning the registration table

After a while, we were given the signal to proceed to the main hall. The crew and anchorpersons were already there as well as the audience which were composed of select Twitter celebrities (spotted Heart Evangelista, Maxene Magalona and Isabelle Daza), Congressional interns, editors-in-chief of different university publications and of course, us – bloggers. Also spotted in the crowd were blast survivor Raissa Laurel, Winnie Monsod, Maria Ressa, and other GMA-7 newscasters.

Part of the audience

There was a quiet air of excitement in the air. Ramon Bautista of GMA News TV went around the room asking young people what they thought of the Secretary and everyone seemed to hold her with the highest regard. Some even commented that they’d like to see her as the first woman President of the United States.

We bloggers had our corner on the right side of the room. Cocktail tables were set up near power strips. Noemi, Bong and I took two of the cocktail tables and quickly had our gadgets set up. Later, we were joined by Janette in our table. Marcelle and Vince also joined our little group later.

Bong and I (livestreaming with mobile phone, tweeting with iPad) and taking photos with digicams (photo courtesy of Noemi)

Secretary Hillary Clinton spent a total of about 45 minutes with us, answering questions sent in through text, Skype, Twitter and Facebook. Questions ranged from political (would she help Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo get treatment in the US) to personal (does she have further political ambitions to run for President) to curious questions like what were the contents of her purse, iPad or iPod.

Secr. Clinton with hosts Vicky Morales and Howie Severino of GMA News TV

 

Maxene Magalona asks a question

All went smoothly except for one incident where the editor-in-chief of the UP Collegian, Marjohara Tucay, stood up just as another question was about to be asked from the floor. Tucay held up a cloth sign (cleverly folded and tucked away to avoid security scrutiny) and began shouting “Junk VFA” (Visiting Forces Agreement). He continued shouting as he was calmly led out of the hall. Meanwhile, Sec. Clinton kept her cool as she witnessed everything. Just before this, she was saying that in politics, one had to have skin as thick as a rhino. She indeed showed she could not be fazed even under frequent protests she sees in many places she visits.

As for the message that Tucay was trying to deliver, he has his points but I really doubt that the method he used delivered that message across effectively. He seems to have come off as a distraction who actually spiced up the entire forum. If only he had addressed the question directly to Sec. Clinton.

Protest sign held up by EIC of UP Collegian

In an article published by GMA News prior to this event, it was referred to as “groundbreaking”. It was, indeed. When we were chatting earlier with Robin Diallo, Counselor for Public Affairs with the US Embassy, she told us that this was the first time EVER that Sec. Clinton would be doing this. With security always very tight around her, mobile devices and gadgets were never allowed. The fact that the US Embassy Manila was able to get her (and her security) to agree to doing this was one-up already. Robin said that internally, as they were planning for this event, they referred to this as “townterchat” (short for TOWN hall, inTERview and CHAT). To actually get citizens and social media together and up close with her was a social media coup.

I am happy to have been part of this social media event. I congratulate the US Embassy in Manila for putting all this together. Indeed, they are the social media pioneers in diplomatic circles in this region. The success of this event will hopefully pave the way also for others who visit Manila to do something similar and engage netizens and the citizenry.

 

Here’s the entire Conversation in Manila, courtesy of GMA News TV’s YouTube channel:

 

Also visit the US Embassy Manila’s post on this event HERE.

 

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VISAtisfied Voyager: new visa blog of the U.S. Embassy Manila

The U.S. Embassy Manila is now the most active embassy in the Philippines on social media (with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr). And just recently, they did it again!

They now have….*drumroll*…..a VISA BLOG!

You read that right. They have an official visa blog, VISAtisfied Voyager, whose goal is “to provide timely and relevant information to members of the public interested in learning about the Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visa processes.”

The choice to put up a blog shows the determination of the embassy to draw in feedback from readers. Every week, topics relevant to visa applicants will be posted. You can ask questions, leave comments and even provide feedback with any experience you may have while applying for a U.S. visa.

Behind the blog is a team of visa experts from the embassy’s Non-immigrant and Immigrant Visa units. It is hoped that through this blog, visa applicants can be kept up to date with new developments that may affect their applications.

Take note though. The U.S. Embassy Manila will not be able to respond to individual visa-specific questions on the visa blog. If you have questions that are specific to your situation, email the embassy at the following addresses:

consmanilaniv@state.gov (for individual, non-immigrant visa applications)

ivmanilareplies@state.gov (for individual immigrant visa applications)

With literally thousands of Pinoys applying for travel visas every year, the addition of this visa blog is sure to clear up many myths and provide clear advice for everyone, more so for those who may be applying for the first time.

Congratulations to the entire team of the U.S. Embassy Manila who are behind VISAtisfied Voyager as well as responsible for all its social media efforts!

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The US Embassy in Manila launches its new annex building for consular services

Consular services, whether for non-immigrant visas, immigrant visas or services for American citizens in Manila has been improved several notches up with the recent inauguration of the New Office Annex Building (referred to as NOX 1 for short) on the US Embassy grounds.

Formally opened last April 27, 2011 by none other than U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, the $50-million annex building is not just “a work of art on a grand scale”, as described by Amb. Thomas, but also was built to the most stringent safety requirements. The media, including me, had the unique privilege of being toured around the building by the Consul General himself, Michael Schimmel.

One interesting thing that Consul General Schimmel mentioned was that, contrary to popular belief, 70% of all visa applicants actually get their visas approved. He also dispelled the myth that it is so hard for a Filipino to get a U.S. visa. Schimmel said that for as long as an individual can prove a professional and economic reason to return to the Philippines, that person will be given a visa.

Some interesting trivia and features on NOX1

  • The contract to design NOX1 was awarded to Makati Development Corp. (MDC). The building costs around US$50 million and is part of a $130 million investment in the local economy and the creation of 2,000 jobs for Filipinos. This is the largest contract yet awarded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations to a foreign contractor.
  • Ground-breaking was last June 29, 2008 and attended by then-US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and former OBO Project Director Rodney Evans
  • NOX1 is a 2-story state-of-the-art office complex covering a total office area of more than 12,000 square meters. The first floor is for non-immigrant and immigrant visas; the second floor is for American citizens.
  • NOX1 is the second largest such consular services building worldwide. The largest one is in Mexico.
  • Its structure is made of over 12,000 cubic meters of concrete and 5,000 tons of structural steel and it is designed to withstand even the most severe seismic event. From the looks of the outer walls, I can hazard a guess these are several inches thick and fully reinforced to withstand attacks from the outside. And the doors are heavy, with shatterproof glass windows too. I know….just opening those doors took some effort, despite these yogini arms.
  • Additional safety features include state-of-the-art fire detection and suppression systems.
  • It is a “green” building, with architectural features made of sustainable materials and cooling/lighting fixtures fitted with environmentally friendly and energy-efficient components. Even sewage waste from the building is treated and recycled into irrigation water at a newly constructed sewage treatment plant on site.
  • Visa applicants will be happy to note they now have 99 interview windows with sound-proofing for improved privacy during interviews. Of course, not all 99 are occupied by consuls at any one time but there are enough of them to ensure the wait won’t be long.
  • Public waiting areas on the first and second floors can comfortably seat more than 500 people in airconditioned comfort. Additional waiting areas outside (not airconditioned) have a capacity for over 300 people.
  • Both the airconditioned and non-airconditioned areas are equipped with modern queuing systems and LCD TV screens. Huge electric fans cool the non-airconditioned area.

Here are more pictures of NOX1. We were privileged to be allowed to take these photos because, I am told, once the building is operational, no one (not even the US Embassy employees) can take pictures.

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U.S. Embassy in the Philippines holds its first web chat

In an unprecedented move by an embassy to connect with Filipinos and answer some burning questions, the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines is hosting a web chat right now (Feb. 23, 2011) as I am typing this post out. The first topic: U.S. Non-Immigrant Visas.

The hour-long web chat (from 4pm to 5pm) was well-announced. First, a Facebook event page was created. Then I heard the announcement of the web chat several times since yesterday over Crossover 105.1 FM. And a friend told me it was also announced over DZRH when a consular representative guested.

The chat room has about 117 participants as of this writing which includes people from the U.S. Embassy who are answering the questions posted on the chat room. To log on, go to this page.

The questions range from general questions — like what documents are needed to apply for an immigrant visa, why certain people were denied, how long before a schedule can be given — to specific family situations like an entire family wanting to apply for visas to attend a wedding.

I believe that this move not only brings the U.S. Embassy (and its government) closer to the Filipinos but attempts to address issues that are close to the Pinoys’ hearts. The issue of non-immigrant visas was a good choice, considering summer is very near, and many are planning vacations.

There were a few technical difficulties at the start of the web chat but I believe those are just birth pains. I hope that this marks the start of more technology-based communications with the Filipino people on matters that are of importance to both countries.

I’d like to congratulate the U.S. Embassy in Manila as well as the entire team behind it. More power to you!

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Bloggers Join in Welcoming U.S. Cultural Affairs Officers

Ever since Pres. Barack Obama was ushered into the highest position of the land in the United States on the back of a campaign built with the help of the internet and new media, the landscape of government has never been the same. The ease of Pres. Obama with tech, new media (bloggers), the web, and social networking sites is showing in the way the U.S. embassies around the world are slowly becoming open to bloggers being included in their events.

Right here in the Philippines, I am witnessing a new openness, a willingness by the U.S. Embassy to engage the citizens of the country they are living in and reach out to the ordinary man in the persons of bloggers. To me this is a delightful FIRST. After all, we bloggers do not hold any outstanding achievement in any political, cultural, academic or artistic arena. We are not part of large media organizations that are normally invited to cover embassy events. All we own is that piece of real estate in the blogosphere we can rightfully call ours where we exercise our right to freedom of speech and thought, where we express our opinions and dreams, and very rarely, rant.

Firstly, my wedding godchild (inaanak sa kasal), Jay de Jesus, became the first ever to join the U.S. Embassy in Manila as their Emerging Media Specialist for Public Affairs. That title is loaded!!! Jay is basically the point person for the embassy’s social network sites (SNS), really raising the bar of SNS as  a major communication and feedback tool.

The very first invitation I received as a blogger from the U.S. Embassy was for a reception dinner at the USS Blue Ridge (the flagship of the US Seventh Fleet) when it docked in Manila for a visit.

Last Friday, bloggers got a second invitation. This time, it was a reception for the U.S. Cultural Affairs Attache, Alan R. Holst, and the Assistant Cultural Affairs Attache, Joseph Tordella.

The cozy dinner, hosted at the home of Counselor for Public Affairs, Richard W. Nelson, was meant to introduce the two to Manila’s cultural circuit. Present were people representing their own spheres of influence in the arts, music, literature, sports, theater, education and so on. The Cultural Affairs spearheads, sponsors, and is involved in several projects in these fields. Professional visits and exchange programs between the Philippines and the United States are handled by these officers.

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