How would you describe the evolution of social media in the Navy?
There have been profound changes to the way that the U.S. Navy approaches social media since Gahlran first launched his blog five years ago. In 2007, the Navy had a scarce social media presence. Besides a few disparate early adopters like @flynavy or @NavyNews on Twitter, or Naval Station Rota on Facebook, the Navy had no real organizational appreciation or approach to social media. Many within the Navy were generally aware of the potential of social media, but effectively articulating the costs or return on investment were stumbling blocks to gaining institutional buy-in. Since I became the Chief of Information in 2009, my perspective has also changed.
Every few months, I travel to discuss Navy public affairs with prospective commanding officers. During the first few visits, I asked them to consider whether or not their command should have a presence in social media as they considered their responsibilities of command. However, during those same visits I pose the question much differently today. The question is no longer whether a command should have a social media presence, but how they are going to engage in social media.
Three events over the last three years have illustrated the importance of social media. The first example was when Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake in January, 2010. The national media and really the world wanted to know the extent of the damage, and what was being done to help the Haitian people. During the humanitarian assistance disaster relief operation, more than 22,250 military personnel provided support to those in need. The Navy sent 23 ships, and more than 300 military aircraft were used to assist. The public and our extended Navy family especially families and loved ones of those dispatched to provide relief – shared an instant and insatiable appetite for real-time information. The traditional ways of communicating – press releases, web postings to www.navy.mil, and phone trees, were no longer good enough. Using social media, the Navy was able to extend to anyone and everyone as much information we had as soon as we had it.
|YOKOSUKA, Japan (Nov. 24, 2009) Chief Mass Communication Specialist Palmer Pinckney makes updates to the official U.S. 7th Fleet Facebook social media site. U.S. 7th Fleet began using social media in the Spring of 2009 to promote interaction with the people who have an interest in the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory Mitchell/Released)|
The second example occurred later that same year when the city of Millington, Tenn., home to 28 Navy commands and over 7,000 Navy families and Federal government employees, experienced widespread flooding on a weekend. Dispersed on weekend liberty, unable to reach desktop computers, unsure of where to travel for assistance, Sailors and their families turned to their mobile phones for information. At the touch of a button they were able to get – and share – the latest and most up-to-date information on the status of the base through regular updates from the base commanding officer and their respective commands through Facebook and Twitter. The old ways of doing business simply weren’t fast enough or good enough.
Operation Tomodachi was the third event that generated intense interest from a variety of interested stakeholders and audiences, and showed us that operating in full visibility in the social media environment is inescapable in today’s landscape and society. The world wanted to know what was being done to assist the people of Japan, and Navy families stationed in Japan needed information to make decisions on whether or not they should return to the United States. Commands throughout the U.S. Pacific Fleet used their social media sites to assist families in providing them information they needed to make the important decision on whether they should depart Japan and U.S Seventh Fleet’s Facebook page was the place where media could turn to get the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on Navy efforts.
The choice in whether or not to participate in social media is a false choice. Choosing not to participate in social media cedes the conversation to others. People will be talking about your command and forging your public reputation – just without you. Choosing not to participate simply means you surrender your stake in the outcome.
Not every leader is comfortable using social media. Some leaders think that social media is just a public affairs tool or a way to communicate with external audiences. It’s not. It has, can and should be viewed as a powerful tool for leaders to communicate to Sailors and their families.
In my view, there are three key watchwords which guide our engagements in social media:
Risk. Yes, there are risks to engaging in social media. There are bad guys looking at our stuff too. As with any communication tool to be anytime security is paramount. We don’t talk about classified information on a phone, a fax machine, or unclassified email. Security at the source remains paramount in this medium. There is also real risk in not participating. The Navy’s brand, and that of every command within the Navy, should not be left to others to define for us. That is the risk we suffer when we don’t engage. In any crisis in this environment, this risk compounds dramatically.
Transparency. In large organizations there’s a tendency to communicate only when we have all the answers, and only when the news is good. It’s ok to tell people what we know as soon as we know it, even when we might not have all the answers. By the time we have all the answers, the public understanding of the issue is already being shaped profoundly by others. As for bad news, word travels fast – geometrically fast – in social media. “Hiding” information and hoping it’s not exposed is not a viable course of action. It erodes faith in our Navy and its leadership, and when the truth is revealed by someone else it is never as we would have it characterized.
Speed. Every week we learn something new and become more proficient in social media. The speed of moving information and the pace of new techniques make this an incredibly intellectually challenging and agile medium to operate. At 12:15p.m. on April 6, 2012, an F/A-18 Super Hornet crashed into a civilian apartment complex just outside Naval Air Station Oceana. Within the first hour there were over 70,000 tweets sent on Twitter, ranging from eyewitnesses to national media. If we weren’t participating in the environment immediately, public perspective and understanding would have continued to morph in unhelpful ways.
Compelling. Time and attention are in short supply. People are bombarded with messages and demands on their time. What we communicate in social mediums must matter. I believe every communicator must, “Produce as they would consume.” As government leaders and communicators, if we wouldn’t click or share the content we produce ourselves, why should we expect someone else to do the same? What we produce must be compelling. Our ideas and products must rise above the noise, information and demands we confront in our personal lives. Sometimes that means taking risk in the marketplace of ideas. Once again, there is risk in being mainstream and predictable --no one will listen. Then who will be left to understand our institution or follow in the footsteps of those who are currently serving?
In summary, the means by which some people come to understand the world around them has changed because increasingly their view is shaped by what they consume in social media. We have recognized that in the Navy, and are all in on ensuring they understand – and value – their Navy by sharing our story in that environment.