Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs: Who is Macon Phillips?
Macon Phillips was hired by then-Secretary of State John Kerry on September 23, 2013, to serve as coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs. He held that post until January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump assumed the office of president. Located within the U.S. State Department, the bureau is the main propaganda arm of the U.S. government, responsible for producing and distributing information about the U.S. to an international audience. After leaving the State Department, Phillips was hired as chief digital officer for the anti-poverty group CARE.
Phillips was born on June 29, 1978, in Huntsville, Alabama. His parents, Dr. Macon and Barbara Phillips, enrolled their son, at age 5, in the Randolph School, a private kindergarten-through-12th-grade college prep institution located in Huntsville. Phillips graduated from Randolph in 1996 and then attended Duke University, where he earned an A.B. degree in sociology in 2000.
Following graduation, Phillips joined AmeriCorps, where he worked to help provide low-income housing. In April 2005, after a stint working for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Phillips was hired as the director of strategy and communications at Blue State Digital, a Washington, D.C., tech firm. He was then recruited as a senior strategist for Democratic Florida State Senator Rod Smith during the 2006 Florida gubernatorial election.
At Blue State, Phillips was involved in the creation and management of then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign website, which was said to have generated a million Facebook “friends” and about $500 million in donations.
In April 2008, Phillips was named deputy new media director of the Obama for America campaign organization, for which he oversaw email and social media outreach to help build on Obama’s swelling grassroots movement. “We're serving as a connector between the policymakers and the citizens that put them in office,” Phillips told The Chicago Tribune at the time. “There's a lot to learn. I don't have any experience in government other than being a taxpayer.”
In a May 2013 interview with Mark McCarter of The Huntsville Times, Phillips reflected, “I finalized the fact that I was going to have a job in the White House and The Huntsville Times ran a little blurb, ‘Obama aide named to the White House,’ that was on the front page and it had a little picture. My mom was proud and everybody (I knew) in Huntsville thought this was great.”
Upon Obama’s win as president that November, Phillips was promoted to new media director of the Obama-Biden Transition Project, a three-month operation for which he designed the Office of New Media and a transition-team website, Change.org. He also oversaw a revamped WhiteHouse.gov website that was activated at 12:01 pm on January 20, 2009—Inauguration Day. His work on that site was done in close coordination with the online activities of the Democratic National Committee, which administered the BarackObama.com website.
With the rollout of the Obama administration in January 2009, Phillips was appointed special assistant to the president and director of the newly established Office of Digital Strategy (the renamed Office of New Media). Among Phillips’ accomplishments at the office was his development of “We the People,” the White House’s online petitioning system, which served as a platform for 400,000 citizen-petitions signed by more than 16 million users.
Phillips was embroiled in controversy in August 2009 when, in a blog posting on the WhiteHouse.org site, he asked the public to alert the White House of any reports of disinformation being spread in the debate over Obama’s efforts for a new health care law (which would eventually become the Affordable Care Act). Phillips’ online invitation triggered privacy concerns among some, and drew a warning from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that the posting might be a harbinger of “a new White House program to monitor American citizens' speech opposing [Obama’s] health care policies…” In a letter to Obama, he said it seemed “inevitable that the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and private speech of U.S. citizens will be reported to the White House. You should not be surprised that these actions taken by your White House staff raise the specter of a data collection program.”
Obama responded: “What we’ve said is that...if you get an email from somebody that says for example, ‘ObamaCare is creating a death panel,’ forward us the email and we will answer the question that is being raised in the email. Suddenly, on some of these news outlets, this is being portrayed as Obama collecting an enemies list. Now, come on guys, here I am trying to be responsive to questions that are being raised out there.”
But on August 17, 2009, the White House shut down firstname.lastname@example.org, the e-mail address it had set up to receive reports from the public. That day, Phillips posted a defense of his project that he said had invoked “a variety of sinister conspiracy theorists” and become “the target of fear-mongering.”
Four years later, as coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs, Phillips reported to Richard Stengel, then-under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. Phillips’ duties required extensive international travel as he advised foreign governments on advances in digital technology and communication. But Phillips found that much more awaited him as he began his new job. Only four months earlier, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a scathing report (pdf) about the bureau, citing low morale, “reorganization fatigue,” and a “leadership [that] created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty.” Phillips’ predecessor, Dawn McCall, “believe[d] she [had been] hired with a mandate to ‘fix’ IIP,” according the report, so hopes were high for Phillips to help move the agency beyond the serious problems cited in the OIG report.
Phillips is the brother of Metropolitan Opera lyric soprano Susanna Phillips. “The amount of times I made her scream at me is responsible for her development as a vocalist,” he said about his kid sister to AL.com. “She owes a lot in terms of her volume and range to my relentless teasing.”
Phillips and his wife, Emily Price Phillips, have two sons.
To Learn More:
Macon Phillips: We Need to Talk about America (by Russell Brown, Public Address)
Obama’s Officials to Revamp Digital Diplomacy at State Department (by Philip Rucker, Washington Post)
Huntsville's Macon Phillips Playing Key Role in Obama White House as Director for New Media (by Mark McCarter, AL.com)
Macon Phillips: The Man behind WhiteHouse.gov (by Eric Benderoff, Chicago Tribune)
Macon Phillips Press Conference, Israel (video—Samy Ofer School of Communications, IDC Herzliya)
Foreign Press Center Briefing on "Digital Diplomacy: Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign" (video—U.S. Department of State)
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