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Military leaders catch on to what social media can do

Jul. 18, 2009 - 01:48PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 18, 2009 - 01:48PM  |  
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The brass are blogging, friending and tweeting. And they want you to join in.

Welcome to Web 2.0 — military style — where blogging is encouraged, Facebook is quickly becoming official and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has more than 3,500 http://twitter.com/TheJointStaff">following his posts on Twitter.

"Just wrapped up press avail and [was] asked about Twitter," Adm. Mike Mullen tweeted recently. "Happy to report I'm on it! Critical and meets needs for flexibility and adaptability."

It's all part of the latest Web wave of people-connecting communications. But unlike previous years, when the services put up stuffy outposts on the social-media frontier while leaders wrung their hands over bloggers on the battlefield, these days there seems to be a growing enthusiasm for social media — not only as a tool for commanders to communicate with their troops, but also as a means for troops to talk to their leaders and the world at large.

Consider these developments from the past few months:

• In April, the Army launched its official Facebook page, which already has garnered 34,000 fans. The other services say they're now in the process of preparing their own pages.

• In May, U.S. Forces Afghanistan launched Facebook, Twitter and YouTube sites in hopes of beating the Taliban to the punch in their daily bouts of infowar, as well as to provide a place for troops to interact and post.

• In June, the Army began opening access to some social-media sites on its networks. "The intent of senior Army leaders is to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story,' " the order reads.

• This month, the new chiefs of European and Southern commands began blogging about their tours of duty almost before the change-of-command formations had dispersed.

In response to comments on the first post on his "EUCOMversations" blog, European Command chief Adm. James Stavridis wrote, "I'd like this forum to be a place where we can share ideas and opinions. Please feel free to share your thoughts on how we might communicate most effectively, or on anything else, for that matter!"

Plugging in

"Two years ago, they were trying to put the last nail in the coffin of social media," says J.P. Borda, a former soldier who started blogging during a 2004 deployment to Afghanistan. Borda now runs http://www.Milblogging.com">Milblogging.com, a blog and index to more than 2,000 military blogs around the world. "Now, the military is completely realizing they need to embrace it."

Maybe not completely, though, at least not yet, Army 1st Sgt. C.J. Grisham said.

"The upper echelon gets it, the lower echelon gets it, but it's the middle ranks in between — the O-5s and O-6s — that are still really struggling with whether or not this is a good thing," says Grisham, who's written his blog, http://www.soldiersperspective.us">A Soldier's Perspective, since 2004 after returning from Iraq and is now stationed at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

"But that's the great thing about social media: General officers who are usually locked away in their ivory towers can now hear directly from the troops," Grisham said. "It's not like the open-door policy that everyone is afraid to use; now anyone can just go to the general's blog and post a comment."

Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear he wants the Pentagon to get better at reaching — and understanding — its largely 20-something work force.

"How do we get better plugged in with what they're thinking?" Gates asked when questioned recently on the changing landscape of social media and the military. "How do we reach them in a way that they understand? This department, I think, is way behind the power curve in this, and it's an area where I think we have a lot of room for improvement."

In many ways, the Army has been leading that effort.

Lt. Col. Kevin Arata was tagged to lead the newly created Online and Social Media Division of Army Public Affairs.

"There is a growing realization that this is where people are getting their information, and in our absence, other people are speaking for us," Arata says.

And he's not just talking about the Taliban. Before he put up the Army's new Facebook page, there were already hundreds of profiles bearing the name "U.S. Army."

The Army has even opened an "island" on the virtual world "Second Life," complete with a recruiting station officials hope might generate real-world leads. The island also includes fun — some might say silly — stuff including a parachute jump and Apache helicopter rides.

Let them blog

Meanwhile, the services are encouraging real troops to blog.

"We want soldiers to tell their story," Arata says. "We don't want them on Facebook seven hours a day; they need to do it responsibly."

But that doesn't mean they shouldn't do it honestly.

"People will always have something bad to say, but we take the good with the bad and trust the truth will come out. Sometimes it's not pretty, but we've learned that most of the time it is," he says.

One of Arata's Air Force counterparts agrees.

"This is one of the beauties of the blogosphere," Paul Bove said. "There's tons of opinion out there. If someone else wants to agree or disagree, they can continue the dialogue."

Even on controversial topics, as long as you don't violate security rules, "No one should try to stifle you," said Bove, http://twitter.com/AFPAA">who manages the Air Force's Twitter feed and its "Hap Arnold" Facebook page for the long-deceased first chief of the service.

Suspicions remain

Bloggers such as Grisham are still guarded, though.

He has good reason. He's been under investigation by the Army inspector general since someone in the Air Force lodged a complaint about a satire he posted about President Barack Obama.

"There are still people out there with this outdated notion that soldiers should be robots, who think soldiers should surrender their First Amendment rights when they put on the uniform," Grisham said.

That hasn't stopped Army leaders in the Pentagon from actively supporting his blog and an Internet-based radio show he hosts dubbed YouServed.com.

In fact, one recent episode began with harsh criticism of Obama and ended with an interview of the vice chief of staff of the Army.

In an awkward exchange, and a sure sign of the strange connections forged by the new media, Gen. Peter Chiarelli kept calling the first sergeant "sir" before launching into an informative glimpse into Army suicide prevention efforts.

_______________________

In an experiment to test the responsiveness of top officers to social media — and ping them for their thoughts — Military Times asked four combatant commanders a series of questions on their blogs. Check out their blogs to see who responded:

http://useucom.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/756/">Adm. James G. Stavridis, commander of European Command

http://www.africom.mil/africomDialogue.asp?entry=20">Army Gen. Kip Ward, commander of Africa Command

http://www.southcom.mil/AppsSC/Blog.php">Air Force Gen. Doug Fraser, commander of Southern Command

http://www.northcom.mil/NNCBlog/default.aspx">Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of Northern Command

Related reading

Front-line tweeting tells war's story, in brief

Social media in the military — the good, the bad and the ugly

• Army lifts Web 2.0 blockade, for some

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