Army needs Social Media help…from civilians?

June 9, 2011

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.

Advertisements

Social Media blocked on the battlefield

July 1, 2009

Working public affairs in a combat zone brings new challenges daily.  I love my job because I get to tell the story of the American Soldier in Iraq.  Specifically, in 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

However, lately, I’ve been really flummoxed at my inability to access Social Media sites.  I feel like I can’t, know I can do a better job as a brigade public affairs officer if I had access to sites that the Secretary of Defense wants me to use.

Herein lies my professional frustration.  The Secretary of Defense has said on numerous occasions that public affairs officers need to reach audiences through social media.  You can read various statements here, here, and video here.

“Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals.  It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.” -SecDef Robert Gates, Nov. 2007

The newly appointed Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs recently said about social media, “It’s not just better one-way communication; it’s better two-way communication. It’s not just us reaching people; it is them reaching us, too.”

And he has a twitter feed on the official DOD Web site.

And almost a year ago Iwrote about the Secretary of the Army encouraging military blogging.

Before deploying my brigade established a presence on several social media sites.  Several are registered on the Army’s official social media directory.

After lengthy days at the office or covering events, I update the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division Facebook page on the SniperHill internet in my containerized housing unit…it connects at Slowsky-like 8kbps and I pay $88/month.  The money is not the issue, I consider it a personal expense for occassional professional use, however, I could do much more if I had access at my desk—just like the PAOs & other Soldiers in the states.  Access the senior leaders say I should have.  Access that keeps family members informed.

I feel bad when my brigade commander asks me “Hey, PAO, when are we going to start the brigade blog?”  I have to give him the penguin salute because I can’t effectively launch it without access to monitor the activites or have a truly interactive environment.

For those who think…“stop whining, back in WWII we didn’t have that internet stuff”…I dare you to look at our Facebook page and see what the moms, dads, and spouses say when they see a photo of their Soldier or images of where the special person works and lives.  Now, you will see the power of social media.  I’m happy to “whine” on their behalf.

Recently, the Army allowed access to these sites from bases in the states.  That’s nice, however, when a Soldier can go home to their family at night there is less of a need for social media—except the fan, follower, subscriber base that’s built in garrison can be exploited during a deployment.

Meanwhile, we deployed PAOs are blocked, blocked, blocked by the network managers.  (Except for General Odierno’s PAO who updates his Fan page daily).

For my signal friends, try explaining the classic “bandwidth” argument to the families of deployed Soldiers.  Really, how much bandwidth could about five public affairs Soldiers per brigade effect things—is our networking situation really hinging on five guys uploading photos to flickr and videos on YouTube?  Not to mention the enemy is still beating us to the punch on getting out the story.

I just want do my job as a tell the story of the American Soldier and fight enemy propaganda with truth.  I post on the brigade’s page for the Soldier on guard duty who lives in a tent and seldom has internet access and may not want it–but, his family & friends still want to know how he’s doing.  Without social media access I feel like I have the proverbial a knife in an information gunfight.

DISCLAIMER:  I have submitted a waiver for access that is going through approval channels.  And, of course, views expressed here are my own.  Not the DOD, Army, or my unit.  Hope I don’t get in trouble for this posting. *fingers crossed*

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your interest. Please help us reach our goal of 4,000 Fans on Facebook to represent each Soldiers from the Highlander Brigade deployed to Iraq


Ideas for the 21st Century Military

December 15, 2008

This fall I was afforded a great opportunity to co-author (views expressed were my own and not DoD…see disclaimer in the “About Me” section) a report on Building the Military for the 21st Century:  New Realities, New Priorities.  I learned a lot in this process and have a better understanding of how Think Tanks are able to influence public discussion and policy action.

The public release of the report included remarks by Rep. John Murtha and Rep. Joe Sestak (both retired military officers); and a panel featuring lead author Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at CAP; LTG Stephen Speakes, Army G-8 (Programs Director); and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Dunn, Air Force Association.

(L-R) Lt. Gen. Speakes, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dunn, Lawrence J. Korb after panel discussion

(L-R) Lt. Gen. Speakes, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dunn, Lawrence J. Korb after panel discussion

I encourage you to take a closer look at the report and the fun interactive that was developed by the Center for American Progress editorial team.

There are numerous stories and blogs that are discussing the report and it’s recommendations. You can find blog posts here, here, and here (last link is about our interactive).

Articles here, here, and here.

“It’s said that a nation’s budget reflects its values and its priorities.”
President-elect Barack Obama

“Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well-equipped, can be in only one place at one time.”
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates

Other authors included:  Laura Conley, Sean Duggan, Peter Juul
they can be contacted for further information.


A Major concern for the Army

August 21, 2008

A recent Washington Post article discussed the current shortage of Majors in the Army.  I thought the article was well written and provided good context about the impact of deployments and the expansion of the Army.

Major Insignia

Major Insignia

According to the article:

Majors plan and direct day-to-day military operations for Army battalions, the units primarily responsible for waging the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Army, majors fill key roles as senior staff members, putting together war plans, managing personnel and coordinating logistics.

I’d say that’s an accurate overview.  Though the shortage hurts, we are still fighting and winning wars across the globe.

In general, those of us who continue to serve understand that we aren’t going to get rich in the military.  However, in many of my private discussions my friends agree that a few minor incentives/signs of appreciation would be welcome.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide an annual $1,000 “bonus” for all active duty Majors–incl. mobilized reservists (Total cost to Army…less than the price of 100 Toyota Prius)
  • Extend Tuition Assistance benefits to immediate family members if the Soldier doesn’t want to utilize the benefits due to deployments (Total cost to Army…probably less than the price of a $250K Uparmored HMMWV)
  • Allow officers to select duty station of choice for current -or- future assignment (Total cost to Army…”free” someone’s got to fill the slot)
  • Really encourage Senior Leaders (Generals and Colonels) to mentor Majors…some do this really well, some aren’t as engaging.  I suspect that if there were more instances of Senior Leaders having the “How’s your day Major? Where do you see your career going? blah, blah, blah” conversation than many Major’s would simply “feel better.” (Total cost to Army…”free”)
  • Utilize technology to enhance the assignments process (Think: match. com) e.g…A Major fills out a profile of his “desired assignment type, location, duration, family, etc…” that information goes into a computer with an algorithm that spits out potential assignment options.  Through a Social Networking tool, the Major can now contact the Major who currently fills the potential assignment to ask specific questions “How are the schools? Do you like your boss? When will your unit deploy? What are the recreation options? Do you use X,Y,Z equipment?”  All along the way the assignment officer can monitor the conversation and establish report dates based on what works best for the officers–because they will have real-time information.  (Total cost to Army…undetermined; however, the Social Networking technology already exists…just need the “match” feature)
  • Give Majors a free uniform voucher to replace the Green Class A’s.  This is a win-win for the Army because leaders should be the first in the new uniforms and the Majors would appreciate the vouchers. (Total cost to Army would be less than 100 Smart Fortwo!!!)

Let’s hear your opinions…So what do you think?  Should Army Majors simply serve for pride and commitment to duty?  Are the incentives I discussed feasible?  Why do you think the Army is slower than the Navy to embrace incentives? (I have a college classmate who has received $122,000 in bonuses during his Naval career as a Surface Warfare Officerhe’s never been shot at!)