Posted by: blackvector | April 9, 2009

Protest Organized On Twitter: Why PA Needs To Engage in SN

Moldova protestersReading  a  CNN Story on Protests in Moldova, which was Twitter orchestrated, it is clear more than ever the Department of Defense’s Public Affairs capability must be plugged into Social Networking (SN). Not because SN is the latest and greatest way to communicate, I would argue it does not replace face-to-face communication, but because SN is being increasingly used to sway public opinion on nearly everything from products to political affiliations. In the case of Moldova, SN was used to orchestrate a 10,000 person protest against elections that are perceived by the Moldavian people to be rigged. I am not going to debate the truth behind that, but I am going to debate the need for PAs to access and understand Social Networking and Now Media.

Today a friend of mine proposed that SM is not a cure all, it is not the answer to all that ails an organization’s PA efforts — I agree. Further, another friend asked what about the traditional methods, do we throw those away. I would say no, we do not.  In an earlier post I spoke about the need to incorporate SM practices into existing processes. The example from Moldova highlights that the Social Networking tools can have a profound effect on a government and thus can’t simply be dismissed as snake oil, but nor can they be the panacea either. An organization must have a strategy as to what it wants to get out f SN, and then go from there tactically implementing into its processes. But, this usually has to start at senior levels.

Timely of course is yesterday’s appearance of Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Twitter (@thejointstaff). Several other senior leaders in DoD are also starting to have a presence on SN sites and indeed each service’s PA functions also have a presence of SN sites. Yet, there seems to be in some departments a general reluctance to let employees access SN sites out of concerns for security. Problem here is there needs to be a balance and a certain level of risk accepted. Imagine being in an expeditionary environment, unable to access Twitter, for example, then suddenly being caught off guard by an instant Twitter-organized protest at the front gate of the deployed location. It can happen, and I am sure we will see it happen.

Our adversaries are making great use of SN sites. One irony is they are using our own servers in the US to host extremists sites. An article in the Washington Post addresses this, Extremists Using US Services to Host Sites. It is very difficult to develop a counter propaganda campaign if you can’t access your adversaries sites that are actually hosted on US servers. The mechanics of the issue of access is a better argument for a later post, but the need to be plugged into SN sites is there. Not because necessary because it is cool and new, but because if we are not plugged into SN someone will do the talking for us on our behalf. Our adversaries certainly use SN as a cheap force multiplier, but so can we.

For the past several months, I have been working on SN and its implications for use in the expeditionary environment. The need exists for PAs to be on SN sites both at home station and in the deployed environment.

@Home Station

In the day-to-day ops of a typical PA shop, SN can leverage a simple, effective, and cheap way to engage stakeholders around the installation. Some PAs are far ahead of their peers in the SN game. On Twitter, @US_Air_Force, @180thFW, @433_AFRC, @Nellisafb and @AFCombatCamera are doing a fantastic Job at highlighting their organizations with frequent updates and interactive discussions. They also have a presence on FaceBook. One key here, interactive, they follow people back and personalize the conversation. If you are going to do it, you need to be engaging, otherwise set up your fax machine to send out news releases. There are non-PAs using SN to talk about the AF, One such person is Jen at her Blog, 20 Something and in The Air Force. A great site discussing what it is like to be in the AF — talk about a great recruiting tool, 3rd party advocacy.

@Deployed  in AOR

In the expeditionary environment, new ground for SN, the pay off maybe even bigger. On FB, Twitter, YouTube and other sites one can find several deployed members talking about their experiences with their friends and family. Organizations can’t pay for that kind of exposure. It is what we are  trying to accomplish, I would argue, with ideas like making every Airman a communicator. An organization’s best resource for spreading the word is its own people. On Twitter, one ANG member, @deployedteacher, is doing just that. He has an interesting ongoing discus ion as life as a deployed teacher serving in the National Guard. There are a few other examples as well, some have a presence on FaceBook, which I see as a valuable tool when your deployed not only to keep in touch with friends and family, but to let them know what we’re doing in the expeditionary environment from someone on the ground.

@What next?

Well, clearly a need exists to integrate SN tools into the PA arsenal to amplify DoD’s communication efforts. Yet many of the usual hurdles must be overcome: costs, manpower, security, and a fear of losing control over the message. Well folks, the costs is minimal, the manning is there, just integrate SN into existing structure, security is an issue, but PAs are Twittering at home as a result, and the control of information was lost with the advent of the Internet (in my opinion, once the Internet started, the ability to control a message or target audiences became skewed). Bottom line: PAs need to engage in SN.



  1. You raise some good points, foremost for me being how can PA’s successfully respond to the modern operating environment when they continue to have limited access to that very environment. It’s a frustrating joke.

    Though I don’t see any benefit for anyone with the appearance of Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Twitter (@thejointstaff). They use it to spit out press releases, there’s no interaction, no personality – and as a result, no credibility. People will follow it for the “Gee Whiz” factor, but people can see right through it for what it is. He should have thought out better a strategy for using Twitter before some one put it up there under the assumption that any Twittering is better than no Twittering at all.

  2. I really liked your post on this topic. It looks like the brass is finally getting the concept of Twitter and other things.

    The problem is that the government is not filled with early adapters. Most people like the military because it’s safe and there is a routine to it. For example, the uniform. Military guys know what they have to wear to work every day. It’s only when you leave the military that you have to face the decision of what to wear and how long you’ll grow you hair.

    Please keep at it, but know that most will not get it. Sadly, the use of Twitter is a good communications vehicle for disasters. For example, the amazing Hudson River rescue saw the deployment of Twitter as a crisis communications tool.

  3. The benefits far outweigh the operational security if you ask me. This is the information environment in which we work; we should embrace it or we’ll fail miserably.

  4. Once again you have obviously put more thought into this than most of your contemporaries. The comments also reflect some truth but not absolutes. I personally like the military because of the opportunity to be innovative, and dislike the comfort level some (okay many) settle into.
    I am ready to raise the flags, sound the trumpets and send the troops into the masses of SN users, but see the hurdles and glass ceilings that have been mentioned in this post and previous posts and wonder if we wil ever get the real buy-in that is required to make it a success, before we are fighting the battle to be in the front lines of the net comunications innovation.
    Gone are the days where the government can wait to see how the tide rolls, and test bed an opportunity to death before implementing it. Somewhere we need a communications technology and application team acting instead of reacting. We need reps at every convention looking for the next potential hot spot to place our message.
    You touch on the unfortunate truths though that only senior government leaders can change. Until they actually embrace the transparency they claim to desire, we will trod forward slowly in the official capacity.
    Fortunately, we are the users right now, and within limits can act as the voice that is yet to be heard.

  5. […] another aside, a good friends and colleague remarked on his blog how recent activity in Moldova got organized via Twitter and how it proved … something … about […]

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