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Military Communication: A Struggle between Security and Being Social

Posted At: December 7, 2010 10:07 AM
by Megan Cotton

With the growth of technology and social media, it has become mandatory for every company to have its own Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. For military public affairs, however, there is a constant debate between the need for national safety versus the need for open communication. Although the Department of Defense (DOD) previously had a closed policy on social media use, times change, and the DOD decided to open access to all service members. TheDOD soon began utilizing its own Facebook and Twitter pages.

Staff Sergeant Dale Sweetnam of the Army’s Online and Social Media Division said the Army decided to open its policy to social media sites <> in order to better communicate with the public and to allow access to the soldiers because social media is the main way they communicate with their families and friends.

“Social media has become a way of life for many of our soldiers,” said Staff Sgt. Sweetnam. “It is the way they get their news and communicate with their families. To completely ignore the platform would be short-sighted.”

Shortly after opening access, the debate changed to how to keep U.S. soldiers safe. All units are allowed Internet access, but if a security issue arises, commanders can place temporary blocks. With growing technology, and with applications like the geolocation on Facebook, keeping classified information from going public is increasingly difficult. If privacy applications aren’t properly set up, even the smallest communication could put someone in danger.

“We encourage them to tell their story through social media but we also stress educating them on the risk,” said Staff Sgt. Sweetnam. “There is no way of tracking who has had access to what you’ve posted and you don’t know what information people can get from a picture or status.”

Beyond opening access to military members, the DOD is using social networking sites for individual commands. Facebook and Twitter opened military communication to the average American, but the trick is providing overall guidance to hundreds of different commands. The challenge is that each command has different key publics, different security levels and different missions, said Grant Thompson, the social media and website coordinator for Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM).

“The DOD is handling it as an evolving policy, and the Army is learning and experimenting with new ways to communicate,” said Thompson.

While AMCOM uses its Facebook and Twitter to update people around the world with information involving aviation and missiles, Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., uses its page as a bulletin board of information for Arsenal employees and the Huntsville community.

“This is a way to let the community know what’s going on with their family or friends on the Arsenal,” said Thompson, addressing the way social media is used for everything from severe weather alerts to town hall meeting announcements. “We’re using videos and pictures to help people feel more connected with what’s going on.”

Beyond keeping information protected, the Armed Forces faces the same challenge as any company using social media: keeping the sites up-to-date and interesting. It is not enough to have a Facebook or Twitter account; providing the level of entertainment and interaction that gets people to return to the site is important, too. Thompson said this has proved to be a challenge for the military.

“Unlike other companies and organizations, we don’t need to push the envelope,” said Thompson. “The nature of our work can put other people in harm’s way, so we need to be careful and can’t exactly ‘go there’.”

The Navy <> found success with keeping a high level of social interaction. According to Captain David Werner of the U.S. Navy Office of Information, the key is to understand and follow the culture of each site.

“If you are only broadcasting information, it will become apparent to people that you aren’t interested in interacting,” said Capt. Werner. “We [the Navy] have a legacy of telling you something with no expectation for feedback, but that isn’t how these platforms work.”

To keep Navy sites engaging, Capt. Werner said the Navy emphasizes the quality of interaction with its fans versus the number of fans it accumulates. He said the key to engaging is to be genuinely interested in responding and communicating.

“We value fans of the Navy who want to learn about us and interact,” said Capt. Werner. “We post content and pictures that we think they will be interested in. We understand this is not traditional of the military communication, but with this social environment, people get a say in what is worth their time. So we have to compete in order to be transparent and responsive in a timely manner.”

Still in their infant stages, military fan sites are growing every day. They have the potential to change Americans’ views of military communication from a one-way to a two-way conversation. However, in addition to keeping the public informed, every public affairs official must also consider the safety of our active military members and national security.

Is this social engaging giving important for the military or should they return to status quo?

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