The military goes social

Letters from the front have been replaced with Facebook updates

For most of the 20th century, a soldier in the field could only communicate with his/her family and friends via letters that might take weeks or months to make their way to the recipient. But as the battlefield goes high tech, so has the ways soldiers can talk to the outside world.

Managing how social media interacts with the military is the job of Price Floyd, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Floyd, a speaker at O’Reilly’s upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo, discusses how the public face of the military is changing in the following interview.

The role of the Public Affairs office:

Price FloydPrice Floyd: We’re responsible not just for external, but also internal communication. There’s about, depending on how you count it, 2.5 million members of the Defense Department at large, all of the civilian employees, contractors, the men and women in service. And if you count those who retired and their families, it comes to about 10 million. Then there’s the external audiences that could be U.S. and foreign-based.

How social media is being used by the Defense Department:

PF: At the Defense Department, what we have done is embraced social media, and the technology behind it, to engage with all our audiences. That’s everything from veteran’s groups to foreign publics to people who follow me on Twitter. And it’s a two-way engagement. The idea that social media is a better way to reach a broader audience with our message, that kind of one-way communication idea, is not what we want to do. We want to engage with our audience, all of them, on the whole host of issues and policies that we deal with.

Does social media mean losing control of the message?

PF: I think that we need to become much more comfortable with taking risk, much more comfortable with having multiple spokesmen out there, thousands of spokesmen in essence. But, for me, there’s nothing more credible than the men and women who are out there on the front lines fighting the wars that we’re in to send messages back to their family and friends. As you know, you send a tweet or a make a post on Facebook, it doesn’t necessarily stay there. That could be forwarded around. Other people that you never thought could see it will see it, even the media. And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with us no longer controlling exactly what people say to the media and then trying to work with the media to make sure they get their story exactly the way we may want it.

The trade-off between open communications and operational security:

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010PF: This is not a new problem. What’s new about it may be the number of people who may see information they’re not supposed to see because of the ability to communicate to a bigger group of people than you could in the past with a letter. Now it’s Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or MySpace, whatever social media outlet they’re on.

But Operational Security, OPSEC as we call it here, concerns are still around. We still need to worry about them. We still need to focus on them. We still need to educate to them. We have a campaign here called Net Smart. A lot of that is how to use social media responsibly. With this technology, there are benefits, but there are responsibilities, obligations by the users. You need to remember OPSEC. You need to know that people are watching, reading, and listening all the time. And don’t say or do anything on these social media platforms or sites that you wouldn’t say or do in front of your boss or your grandmother. It seems like common sense stuff, but it’s stuff that we need to educate to the force and we’re working to do that.

How the Department of Defense uses social media as a communications tool:

Price Floyd: We have it, but who wants to follow the Defense Department Facebook page? I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it. I think what’s better than that is to follow a person. Like Chairman Mullen on Twitter or your unit commander’s Facebook page. It’s personal. You know who it is.

I think people who follow certain bloggers follow them because of that blogger’s insight, the way they frame issues. It’s not an institution. It’s a person doing it. So they build up a relationship. I have about 2,700 followers of my Twitter site. That’s not that big compared to some. The Chairman’s is much bigger. But I engage with them back-and-forth everyday.

The thing about this, it’s not an institution doing this. It’s about thousands of people in the institution doing it for us. Since we’re so big, thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts, thousands of MySpace accounts.

What social media will bring to the military in the future:

PF: What actually excites me is the possibility of the unknown. In other words, people being able to do things they’ve never done before. Just in the last year or so, as we were looking at this policy review on social media and whether to have a policy of open or closed or something in between, I heard stories from the men and women on the front lines, and I learned things I didn’t know were going on. Mothers and fathers on the front lines doing homework with their children back home in real-time. It’s just amazing, all of the ramifications that may come from that. Transitions could become easier because they weren’t completely gone; the kids still saw dad or mom once or twice a week through Skype.

The technology today has changed the way the men and women overseas are able to communicate back home with their family and friends. I don’t know what’s going to come next, but if past is prologue, there will be both risks and benefits to it. And we need to accept that and try to responsibly deal with it.


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