I can’t put my arms down! Or, learning from the US Navy’s stumbles in the social media arena

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It’s no secret I’m in the Navy. I’m proud of that fact. I’ve served 10 years and will be concluding that service at the start of the Spring.

I’ve been a communicator my entire career and have always done what I can to ensure that what I’ve communicated and HOW I’ve communicated remained relevant and timely.

Let’s go back to a time, say, 2008. It was the year that changed the way society – not just in our great US of A, but all major power nations – communicated with each other by notably incorporating social media beyond personal use into the marketing and informational strategies of media agencies and corporations. The presidential election made excellent use of social media allowing users of Twitter and Facebook direct communication access to candidates as they campaigned for our nation’s future.

But in the advent of this technological advance, the military was working opposite to society, cutting off access to all social media services. What started with blocking MySpace and YouTube led to a figurative witch hunt of all websites that were considered social media so that they could subsequently be closed off. Such policies were attributed to the mere waste of man hours being lost to personnel using these services, to operational security risk concerns (probably the biggest reason of them all), as well as the strain on networks due to bandwidth issues for such sites as YouTube.

At a time when others were picking up on social media as a means of sharing stories, images, information, and opening a dialogue between target user and content creator, we as a military were working backwards.

One of my biggest accomplishments in the Navy was contributing to the reversal of the policy that prohibited social media services by demonstrating how they could be used effectively and in line with our civilian media counterparts. I, along with a team of joint military public affairs and journalism specialists from the Air Force and Marines, streamlined media and imagery release using Facebook and Flickr for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. We archived and organized visual content making it more accessible as we shared our communication efforts with the world – a system that is still in place exactly how I organized it.

Because of what we did as a team and the organization efforts I put into realigning their visual product releases, coupled with the efforts of those in similar situations at overseas commands not falling under U.S. Navy or military jurisdiction, we were able to demonstrate the power of social media and how the military would benefit from its incorporation into a communication strategy.

Because of my efforts I was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal and it was not long after I returned from Afghanistan and was gearing up to head to my next assignment in Bahrain that our work was cited as among the reasons the Navy was opening up access to social media services. It was an honor that I shared with my mentor and friend Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Monica Hopper. Twice over I have been tasked with creating and managing the online social content for Navy commands, which included U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

I share this so that one has a better understanding of where I’m coming from when I say I’ve worked hard to better understand social media, its uses, and how one can use it to reach his or her target audience more effectively. Such understanding comes with growing up with the technology, as well as using it in nearly every stage of its existence.

There is a delicate psychology that needs to be understood with it that some people today are still failing to understand. While that could be the subject of an entire blog itself, I’m going to focus on the media, specifically, Navy media and how it’s still falling short at effectively using social media. I guess I should disclaimer this with being my own opinion and perspective based on what I have observed and experienced throughout my career and in no way reflects that of my command or the US Navy as whole.

The Chief of Information’s senior enlisted adviser came to San Diego last fall and tasked us as Mass Communication Specialists (MC — the Navy’s enlisted media specialists) with finding new ways to share our story. He shared CHINFO’s dismay at how we as Navy communicators were constantly being outscooped by external media with sharing our story, be it positive or negative.

Well I can assuredly say I have witnessed at least one reason why that is. Because the commands for which he has no control develop policies that contradict his wishes as well as slow the process of sharing information. Which is ironic if you think about it considering the Navy’s public affairs doctrine specifically states full disclosure with minimal delay.

Let’s use a semi-real life example:

Currently, my command falls under a strike group. Because my command lacks an official 1650 (the job designator in the officer community that signifies Public Affairs Officer) we must vet our news and visual products through our strike group’s PAO. This is not unusual. The process of review and approval has been the norm for longer than even I have been alive on Earth (33 years last month, in case you’re curious).

So where is the issue? It lies within social media.

Before, I mentioned that there is a psychology behind how social media is used, viewed, understood and shared. Are you posting too much? Too detailed? Not frequently enough to be remembered? And in the case of Navy media, in a timely enough manner?

And therein lays the rub. Timeliness.

Continuing on with our example…

Let’s say I have two Sailors going to a public event honoring WWII veterans returning from the Washington, D.C. memorial at the San Diego International Airport. In an official capacity, I take images as normal. I download the images, caption them and email them to the strike group’s PAO for approval. Because it’s a Sunday, the email with the images will not get seen until Monday at the earliest. And because we are not the only command in the strike group, we’ll likely get the approval and feedback early Tuesday.

Tuesday. TWO DAYS after the event occurred.

Now consider this. The Sailors I was documenting had their cell phones on them. They were taking images of themselves with veterans and sharing them with their family and friends on their social media pages AS IT WAS HAPPENING.

Do you see the difference? Because the official channels and authorities tell me I have to serialize, caption, submit for approval and then release my imagery, the Sailors with a cell phone edge me out in telling their story. So for that matter, WHY WAS I EVEN THERE?! Those Sailors essentially did my job for me with their smartphones because by the time I receive approval to release the images I took, the event has passed, people have already seen images and anything I would have to add will just be seen as too little, too late – such is a characteristic of the psychology of social media and its users.

arms downI can’t put my arms down!

You can change the situations to have occurred during the week and the location to being on the ship, and the result will still be the same. Stalling information so that it can be reviewed by the appropriate channels and thus always being two steps behind everyone else. It’s like we’re the little brother, Randy, in A Christmas Story always trying to run and catch up because we’re bogged down with layers upon layers of unnecessary garments (read: bureaucracy). And yes, occasionally we’ll fall and have trouble getting up.

But the elephant in the room is clear: my shipmates with their own cameras and cell phones have quicker authority to share their story and the Navy’s by extension, than I do as the official public affairs specialist.

Some will argue that past events have made for the process to be necessary when unruly photos or videos are released or leaked. But I can assure you that responsible communicators like me are smart enough to know the difference. Yes, individuals in the past have made mistakes (but I can tell you that neither PA specialists nor PAOs have been the ones sharing these negative materials), but that does not mean you have to stifle communication efforts out of FEAR that it might happen again.

Sharing our Navy story is more important in the bigger picture and trying to apply old school thinking to new technology, in this case, simply will not work.

A possible solution would be to empower the commands more to make the decisions for themselves what images they want to release on social media (most assuredly during a public function wherein the timeliness of sharing such stories and images plays an important part). Higher commands can then simply review subordinate command social media accounts on occasion to ensure relevancy of topics, information, and images and offer feedback as necessary (key phrase there: as necessary). This will cut back the amount of time it takes for commands without a designated PAO to share information and stories because the ultimate release authority would fall back on the commanding officer (most of whom, by that point, have received media training prior to gaining control of a command or ship). This will have the added effect of enabling smaller commands to share their story – because let’s face it, a lot of what the public sees are big deck stories and images because the smaller commands don’t have media departments with immediate access to approval authorities.

The point is that social media is the norm now. Newer platforms are being released and are on the rise and the Navy is still running to catch up. If the process is not made simpler it will forever remain behind and the most talented of Navy MCs (such as the ones I have had the honor of working with and witnessing the awesome work they have done) will eventually tire of the old school thinkers, leave the Navy, and give their talent to someone else. For a vast majority of them, they simply desire to document and inform, and when faced with roadblocks like the ones I’ve seen in my career, it makes it difficult not only for the Navy to tell its story, but to hold on to the communicators talented enough to tell it to begin with.

The lesson is that if one has the foresight to incorporate social media and other content branding principles into their communications strategy, then one also has to realize that you have to play by those rules. Rules that are simply understood through practice and never set in stone. Where the Navy and the military in general, need rules, instructions, and doctrine, it has to realize that the openness of the internet and not just social media, mean that if you invite the technology in, you must be ready to use it as it was intended. Otherwise you risk being that guy at the high school football game who graduated years prior living in today’s world physically and in the glory days of the past mentally.

And I for one know that the Navy is better than that. Alas that’s a battle that will rage on long after my departure. The sun sets on my time here, but it will still rise. I hope that others who follow me are able to build upon the foundations we laid forth when we took on the burden of social media.

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