Army needs Social Media help…from civilians?

Today, there was a great article in Wired.  It was about the Army’s proposal to hire Social Media experts for Afghanistan operations.  This was not a Wikileak; it is a real request for proposal for civilian public relations experts.  (The request is also for well-qualified Dari and Pashtu speakers to participate in the Social Media mission–thumbs up to getting strong linguist for this program.)

I guess I shouldn’t be totally surprised.

Heck, you can read about the Department of Defense spending $384.4 million on Strategic Communications in 2011 or about the billion plus spent on Information Operations for the past few years in a report by the Center for International Media Assistance.  For those keeping score…$384.4 million is enough dough to pay tuition for 50,000 high school graduates to attend college this fall.  The Politico reported that the DOD actually requested $988 million for communications funding for 2010…it didn’t pass.

The reason why this Afghanistan Social Media decision pains me so much is because the minimum qualifications that the Army is looking for–bachelor’s degree and Secret security clearance— is equal or even less than the qualifications of the 150+ public affairs officers we have on active duty.  And of those public affairs officers, several of them have earned Army-funded graduate degrees from top schools like Georgetown the official grad school for Army public affairs officers, UNC-Chapel Hill, Middle Tennessee State, and USC’s Annenberg School. And we even send officers and sergeants to work at Google each year.

Are none of them good enough to run a Social Media program in Afghanistan?  Heck, who’s running these seemingly successful sites right now?  See them here, here, and here.

If you’re still reading this post you’ve probably come to conclusion that I’m courageous or crazy…perhaps both.

Don’t get me wrong here, I agree there is a great need for continued investment in online communications and engaging audiences domestic and international through Social Media. I just think this should be done by training people already in uniform to accomplish these goals.  Really, by the time most photos, tweets, and blog posts are approved by the layers of strategic communications folks at big headquarters in Kabul, Baghdad, Kandahar, it’s a bit too late or too far removed from much of the populace we are trying to influence–many of them are illiterate or don’t have access to the internet.  Meanwhile, the terrorists and Taliban types are able to cause mayhem and make it go viral because they post from the point of origin–often on mobile phones.Soldiers online

I propose the Army purchases smart phones and commercial internet for their public affairs staffs at the brigade combat team level and arm them with the same communications tools as the terrorists.

Last time I checked, a 3G iPhone runs about $200 $49.  If you bought one for every 100 troops in Afghanistan (about one per company-sized unit), the total costs would be about $200,000  $49,000 + usage plans.  The troops already know how to use smart phones & Facebook.  After developing a policy for what to post and battle drills for when to post, I assure you a positive and tangible impact will be made in our information war.

Where there’s no cell coverage…use a Bgan antenna.

Ideally, we’d shift to training more Afghan journalists so they can tell the story of their country and of their security forces through their own lens.  Developing skills for local reporters should be long-term goal.

Well, I’ve said my $0.02.  I’m not critical of the mission, just the method.  I believe we have people, Soldiers & Department of the Army Civilians, who are ready, willing, and able to accomplish the communications goals for the Afghan War.  As an added bonus, after Army folks complete this task they will retain the experience for future operations.  Seems like a cent-sible solution to me.

Honest two-way communication is the best to build relationships and influence people.  I believe in the Defense Information School’s motto:  Strength through Truth

I figure I can’t get fired for this post, however, I might just get orders to Afghanistan. I’m ok with that.

DISCLAIMER:  Views expressed here are the authors own and not necessarily the views of the Army or Department of Defense. Nor is the post an official statement of the U.S. Army.  Just one guys opinion.

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