26 December 2008

Toward more guidance Soldiers could use ...

Thanks to the Unofficial Coast Guard Blog for pointing me towards a couple interesting pieces about corporate blogs. While the comments on the posts are geared toward the civilian world and "official" blogs, the suggestions are really appropriate to anyone blogging. In this case, I think they should certainly be included in any training for Soldiers who are interested in entering the blogosphere.

The first post is on thenextweb.com which stated, first, that only 1 in 6 people find corporate blogs trustworthy. I'll ask some more questions about perceptions toward official military blogs some other time. For the time being, suffice it to say that this, at its roots, is a problem with credibility! So, how then do the authors suggest we can improve this? Consider this comment about corporate (i.e. produced by the PR department) blogs:
the pieces of personal PR are often isolated, living a life within the .com domain of the company. No outgoing trackbacks, social media presence, or articles about phenomena outside the safe haven of the offices.

Turn this around and there are several suggestions for authors to consider:
  • don't link just to your own blog or others in your "world" - in other words, use variety
  • allow and show trackbacks - it allows your readers to follow tangents of your stories
  • have variety in your posts - something beyond the "safe haven" of Soldiering? Okay, the analogy doesn't fit, but the idea still does ... keep variety in your topics
Another bit from this post that is worth commenting on is:
Teach a PR person the fine art of community management 2.0. Give him a free pass for Twittering, Digging, Stumbling, and blogging all the day

Replace "PR person" with "Soldier" and you've got a good suggestion applicable to this project. Again, perhaps its a bit of a stretch to apply this completely to Soldiers - I'm certainly not advocating allowing them to blog all day! Nor am I convinced of the usefulness of Twitter from the "war for public opinion" perspective. But, the most important part of that quote is "teach" - in order to help many of our Soldiers be effective bloggers, we need to teach them about it. I'm still working on ideas for how best to do this education thing ... more to follow on that subject.

The final bit of that short post (I believe these comments my be longer than the original post, but anyway ...) that is worth highlighting is:
Oh, and don’t forget to have a look at some fine examples

This is nothing new. It's been mentioned on this very blog by Tristan_Abbey:
I would recommend training by example: put together a portfolio of half a dozen pieces posted by folks like Michael Yon, Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal, and others. This way the soldiers can see what effective blog posts look like, how they are written, and what kind of content they contain.

The other post linked from CGB is to Web Strategy by Jeremiah which discusses various attributes of the best blogs. I found these to be not earth-shattering, but written well, simply, and applicable to guidance that can eventually be put in the hands of Soldier bloggers, so I'll reprint them (edited) here. For the full list and a way to diagnose your blog as "great", "good", or "horrible" check out Jeremiah's original post.
1. Writing style: Written in a human voice
2. Topics: Discusses the lifestyle (or workstyle) of actual customers
3. Humility: Admits when wrong and discusses in open the short comings of the company and product and demonstrates in public how it will be improved
4. Linking Behavior: Links out to other sources, even competitors or critics as well as the next listed
5. Customer Inclusion: Allows for customers to guest blog, or includes snippets of their experiences
6. Dialog: Comments enabled and published instantly
7. Comment Moderation: Comments (other than spam or off topic) are allowed, including direct disagreements
8. Frequency:While more isn’t always better, having a steady rhythm of content is important

Obviously, that list is tailored for folks in the business world, not in the military. Regardless, the ideas still apply. I found items 1 and 2 to be exactly what many of you have said attracts you to milblogs - they're written by, and in the voice of, a Soldier on patrol and they contain personal stories you won't read anywhere else. Words like product and customers could easily be replaced with mission and public and the suggestion would apply to a Soldier.

On the topic of useful tips for effective blogging, you may also want to take a look at:
One of the main products that I intend to produce from this project is a one or two page "smart sheet" that would be aimed at helping a Soldier enter the blogosphere for the first time and begin to tell his or her story. Any other ideas that you have for things that should (or should not!) be included on such a product, please leave them here. Also, if you've come across (or created!) any useful lists of dos and donts of blogging or ways to increase interest and readership in a blog, those would be sincerely appreciated. Thanks!

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

Have a blessed Christmas celebration whereever you happen to be right now. Please remember to pray for those many service members who won't get a whole lot of a break today as they continue to serve away from their families. Our family anxiously awaits my brother, Joe's return home!

23 December 2008

Defensive blogging

A story this morning on milblogging.com caught my eye for a couple of reasons: it involved the Army Corps of Engineers (my branch) and it involved what I'll term "defensive blogging". The story is about allegations by the website Levee.org that Corps of Engineers employees left comments "targeting citizen critic using tax payer money" and were "re-writing history" (the news report by WWL TV can be seen here.) I have no idea if this is an organized effort by the Corps of Engineers, but it certainly highlights one way that the military can (and, I'd argue, should) engage the blogosphere - by leaving comments on blogs to correct or complete a story.

It's one thing to manage your own blog as an individual or an organization. The Chief of the Corps of Engineers does have his own blog, though it appears to mainly be for internal communication rather than public engagement. But simply posting your own ideas or editorializing on news only gets so far - it only is read by readers of your own blog. Posting comments on other blogs is a way to get your opinions (or facts) out to a brouder audience. This is particularly important if incorrect information is being posted and discussed in blogs. I'd argue that we, as military members, have an obligation to set the record straight when when we see incorrect information floating around.

You may recall stories about CENTCOM's blogging activities from a while back. They do not maintain their own blog; rather, they actively engage other blogs by leaving comments. They are required to be completely open about these posts - which it sounds like these Corps of Engineers employees did not do - which seems a very reasonable requirement. From the stories about CENTCOM, the comments they leave have been received rather favorably and part of that is due, I imagine, to their upfront manner.

Having a small organized team with the task of trolling the blogosphere and correcting or completing stories about your organization seems a very valid and important use of resources. This seems to be something most major commands in the Army (at a minimum) should consider. It's probably not practical or necessary to have an organized team like this at the battalion or brigade level. At those levels, though, we could empower Soldiers to perform the mission. This is, admittedly, a bit more risky because it is not controlled. But if we provide them with information, power, and trust, then I believe they won't let us down.

So, as the Army continues to wrestle with how to best engage the blogosphere, this is one very important tactic - defensive blogging. This is probably a tactic best used by the PA folks around the Army, but there's no reason that it shouldn't be in every Soldier blogger's arsenal.

When you're reading other blogs, or even stories on main stream news websites, do you feel free (and obligated) to correct anything that is untrue or does not present the complete story?

Other thoughts?

300th uniqe visitor stopped by yesterday

Wow! I continue to be amazed at the number of you who have stopped by to peruse these discussions. Thanks for your interest in this subject and project! Perhaps you were #300 yesterday (22 Dec)? That's 300 unique people (or at least IP addresses...) in a little less than a month. Wow! And you're stopping by from all over the world: United States, Germany, Portugal, Colombia, United Kingdom, Canada, Egypt, Australia, Netherlands, India, France, Sweden, Russian Federation, Spain, Thailand, Mexico, China, and Poland.

I encourage you to leave your opinions, ideas, and thoughts in the comments to the posts - don't worry about it being missed, I read all comments that you post and try to respond if you've left something noteworthy, insightful, or in any way helpful. I really do appreciate your participation in this discussion.

If you're one of the regular readers, please consider "following" this blog so you'll be notified when something is posted/updated. Plus, you get acknowledged in the followers "mosaic" to the right!

22 December 2008

Are milblogs biased?

One of the main complaints that I've often leveled at the main-stream media is that they are biased: negative stories, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, liberal, etc. When we toured the CNN studios several weeks ago, we asked the executives about this perception of bias. They danced around the accusations of liberal- and conservative-bias. One did admit that they are biased toward conflict by discussing the elements of a good television news story. The best stories are the ones with dramatic footage of something out-of-the-ordinary happening. The best stories are about topics that are somewhat controversial or, at least, unusual. The best stories are the ones that engage people - they excite emotions in some way.

Similar elements could be listed about what makes the best milblog post, the post that gets the most interest and readership. These stories appear to be the ones with the most personal elements - a dramatic telling of a patrol from an infantryman's perspective, a memorial post to a fallen comrade, or the joy of returning home. Many of the most popular milblogs also include photos or videos that add to the emotional content of the post. But are these posts biased? Do most milbloggers write because they're against the wars and have found blogging as an outlet? Or are most milbloggers pro-military and pro-war and seek to use their blogs to balance what we percieve as the negatively-biased main-stream media with positive blog entries? That's the subject of the current poll (look to the top right of this webpage). Please weigh in with your opinion about any bias you percieve from milblogs you read. Thanks!

We use official blogs for a variety of reasons

Thanks to the eight who responded to the most recent poll, it appears that we are quite mixed on why we access official websites and blogs: the results were evenly split between the four provided choices. Folks head to these official sites to gather or verify information to use just to improve their understanding or to comment or editorialize about on their own blogs.

Like the findings from other polls, this is not too surprising, and I anticipate that the creators/managers of official military sites target these (and likely other) reasons. This finding (again, I admit/understand it's not scientific at all!) corroborates the idea that the military should seek multiple ways to engage the public. Websites are one way; news releases another; and, I contend, new media should be used in increasing ways.

What are the main reasons you access official military websites or blogs?
  • 25% (2) To get more details about something I heard about
  • 25% (2) To see what spin the officials are putting on a story
  • 25% (2) To gather informaton and links for my own blog entries
  • 25% (2) To search for stories I haven't seen anywhere else

18 December 2008

GOs in the Blogosphere

I am very encouraged by a recent post on BlackFive - information about the Army's new training manual, FM 7-0, and a request for feedback on the newly released manual. This is a significant development because this appeal for dialogue did not occur on official Army websites but on one of the most popular milblog sites! This suggests that the Army is certainly understanding the important role that milblogs are playing in modern communication.

Equally as significant as where this request for feedback appeared is from whom the request was generated - BG Abe Abrams, the Deputy Commanding General (Training) for the US Army Combined Arms Center. In addition, BG Abrams did not stop with the post. He engaged in dialogue in the comments to the post with several folks asking questions about the manual and the new ARFORGEN system of managing our Army forces. I'm impressed with this leader's engagement in the blogosphere - it's a great sign that more senior leaders are grasping the reality of new media and seeking ways to better engage our audiences through it.

This is likely just one example of many more to come of the Combined Arms Center, under the leadership of LTG Caldwell (a firm believer in the power of new media).

I encourage all of you to take a look at the new manual and participate in the discussion about it. Like all Army manuals, it is always open for comment and is in a constant state of revision - so share your ideas about it. I also encourage you to take a look at the blogs on the Combined Arms Center's website (you'll have to accept their very basic rules). There is interesting discussion on a variety of topics that may be of interest to you.

17 December 2008

Are unit blogs a good idea?

There are a growing number of them out there: blogs created by military organizations (or businesses, for that matter) that serve to provide command information to the public or enable internal communication. These are often seen as outputs of propaganda at worst and, at best, providing no new insightful information. It seems to me that we are just barely scratching the surface of what could be and have some ground to make up in the perception arena.

One idea that has recently come to mind (partly inspired by Prof. Lawson's article) was for a unit-level blog. This blog would be:
  • maintained by a responsible and effective writer within the organization (whether that's a company, battalion, or brigade - higher than brigade and we lose some of the "muddy boots" perspective)
  • provide information similar to what is often provided to families through family readiness channels but would be tailored for the broader potential audience
  • maintain a blogroll of all blogs of Soldiers in the organization. This would provide one way for the Army to keep up with many blogs and could provide interested readers with a broad perspective on the activities of the particular unit

By maintaining such a blog at the unit level, readers would be presented with a broader perspective than they currently can get by looking at somewhat random individual blogs, it could significantly assist in the distribution of stories that otherwise don't get told or are buried in other press outlets, and potentially could serve as a link between official statements through traditional PA channels and the very unofficial stories told by milbloggers.

Is this idea way off mark or is there merit to it? I'm interested in your thoughts.

10 December 2008

This week’s poll: what value are “official” blogs?

As you’re perusing the discussions on this blog (and leaving your comments since you're an active participant, right?) don’t forget to voice your opinion through this week’s poll (top right of this page). In this discussion about Soldier engagement of new media, I’m curious about what folks think about official military websites and blogs. Specifically, this week’s poll asks you what you personally use them for. Thanks for your participation!

Fill the gap: milbloggers roles in communicating with the nation

By this point in my reading, research, and dialogue with the readers of this blog, I’m now completely convinced that we (the Army) must do more in the blogosphere. Really, we need to do more with new media in general, but for this post I’m restricting comment to blogs. Knowing that we must do more, there has been some valuable discussion about how we can encourage and educate Soldiers to effectively engage the blogosphere. Some useful tips to consider when blogging have been offered; justification for Soldiers’ blogs has been provided in light of the fundamentals of information espoused by the public affairs community; and discussion about the need for credibility has begun.

I turn my attention in this post to some things we should encourage Soldiers to blog about: what I’ll call “filling the gap.”

What gap I am talking about? The gap between what the media thinks the American public wants to hear and what the American public actually wants to hear. Contained in a book we read for class here about military-media relations were survey results that supported what I’d been thinking/guessing for a long time – main stream media is a bit out of sync with main street America. The book (The Military-Media Relationship 2005), a report by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, is based on surveys conducted of the public, military members, and members of the media as well as round table discussion involving representatives of both the military and media. The discussion and several graphs (which are referenced below) provide valuable insight into what blog topics may be the most interesting to the American public. If the Army is to encourage Soldiers to blog it is the following items/topics that should be specifically encouraged.

1. Stories about the rebuilding effort. Charts 1A and 1B (p 50, 51) clearly show that the media overestimates the public interest in coverage of terrorist activities and even more strikingly underestimates the public’s desire for stories about the reconstruction effort. Knowing this, Soldiers can fill a significant need – tell stories about their involvement in reconstruction. There are many engineer Soldiers out there today rebuilding schools and hospitals (and have been doing so for quite some time!) There are many medical Soldiers deployed right now who are helping to provide needed care to many who haven’t had such care in quite some time. There are many civil affairs Soldiers who have been involved in helping to establish local governmental organizations and are helping demonstrate the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. These Soldiers need to have their stories told – and main stream media isn’t doing it to the degree that the American public desire. So let’s blog about our experiences! (By-the-way, Chart 1B also shows that the public wants to hear more stories about individual Soldiers – and what better source than the Soldiers themselves through their blogs.)

2. Positive stories about events in Iraq and Afghanistan. To begin this discussion, it is clear that stories that are not inherently positive must not be spun into something they are not. Nor can negative stories be ignored or brushed under the carpet. The American public absolutely has a right to know the full costs of the endeavor we are currently engaged in. However, Chart 13 (p 70) shows that while 68% of the media believes they provide balanced information, 70% the public sees the coverage as predominately negative! So, what can Soldiers do about this? Provide their own coverage of the many positive events that are occurring on a daily basis while remaining real and fair about what it is really like to serve as a Soldier in these current wars. This blends nicely with item 1 above – stories about reconstruction efforts are inherently positive.

3. Demonstrate willingness to share our stories and be truthful when doing so. Nothing will be more self-defeating than to be perceived as dishonest whether when speaking to the media or writing our own blogs. The American public’s perception is that the military is willing (and does) provide inaccurate information to the media – Chart 12 (p 69) shows this. Charts 8A and 8B (p 62, 63) infer that the media believes the military to be restrictive in providing access and that officers are not encouraged to speak with reporters. Extrapolating from this a bit, I suggest that blogs provide an outlet to help change this perception. While a Soldier blogging is not the same as engaging face-to-face with reporters, it is still a way to show our interest in being open and honest when disclosing information about events we’ve been a part of.

If the traditional media is not going to provide the information and stories that the public wants, using new media is the best way I can think of to do so. There are a couple possible outcomes if we can be successful at doing this. First, traditional media sources will pick up on the stories being published on blogs (as many examples over the past few years prove they’ll do). Secondly, if there is a preponderance of these stories in the blogosphere and they’re getting read, shared, and linked to then perhaps traditional sources will see the appetite that exists and will begin to publish more such stories on their own initiative. The first outcome I’m hopeful would happen; the second I’m a bit more doubtful about (quiet the cynic in me!) but would be very pleased to see occur.

So, I’m curious about what you think of these ideas. Am I na├»ve? Would Soldiers latch on to such guidance? Or, do most Soldiers do this anyway through their blogs? Leave your comments here and enter the discussion.

Is MyBase the first step into the wave of the future for military recruiting, training, and learning?

You’ve likely already seen the news blurbs about the US Air Force’s recent launch of MyBase. It’s designed in SecondLife as a recruiting tool with the goal of eventually growing into a virtual education and training site for the service.

An Army Times report this week also stated that the US Army was pursuing something very similar. The Army’s foray into this virtual land was discussed in Virtual Worlds News last week.
So is this just the military’s attempt to be “hip”? Or is it a legitimate sign of the changing culture within our leadership? Only time will really tell, but I for one am encouraged by it.

08 December 2008

Results are in: 3 out of 5 blog to keep family and friends updated

Last week's poll asked what prompted you to enter the blogosphere. Most (3 out of 5 ... yes, only 5 responses this week, again quite unscientific) said the primary reason was to keep family and friends updated while deployed or out of the country for other reasons. 40% (2 people)said that is was because they felt strongly about a topic. I certainly realize these polls are not scientific and are, therefore, not valid for adding to the academic discussion (congratulations, by-the-way, to the Milblogging.com webmaster - The World's Coolest Dad!). They are, however, a source for some commentary ... and, perhaps a way to generate some more discussion. Thanks again to the participants -- now PASS THIS LINK ON SO MORE PEOPLE WILL VOTE IN THE FUTURE!!

Despite the very low sample size, the results corroborate what I'm finding as I survey milblogs. The majority, so far, exist (at least at first) simply to share stories with folks back home. Several of the top ranking milblogs then morphed into something a bit more - reaching a broader audience. But, even those that have grown large readerships remain primarily focused on sharing accounts of events that the author has been involved in. These personal accounts are what seem to attract many people to milblogs - stories that they can't get from main stream media. This also, by-the-way, matches the reasons that you stated you read milblogs - to get the Soldiers' sides of the story and their opinions about it.

As I see it, there's not much the Army can do to change the motivation for Soldiers to try their hand at blogging - it's not something we can (or, admittedly, want) to do. However, for those that are interested in a way to keep family and friends up-to-date as they're deployed, a blog offers a great method! And, importantly, the Army should do a much better job at educating them to blog as effectively as possible because, unlike e-mail or an old-fashioned letter home, blogs are immediately accessible by anyone who wants to read. Therefore, every Soldiers blog is a piece of the Army's communications whether we like to admit that or not. Not that every Soldiers blog should be controlled by the Army (in fact, as discussed previously, even the perception of control detracts from the credibility.) But just as we owe it to our Soldiers to train them to be successful with the various weapon systems they use, we owe it to them to train/educate them to be as successful as possible using new media.

The detailed (?) results from the poll, if you're interested ...

What triggered your entry into the blogosphere?
  • 3 (60%) Wanted to keep family/friends updated while I was deployed/away.
  • 0 (0%) Wasn't satisfied with what was out there about the war(s), so I started my own blog to write about it.
  • 0 (0%) I enjoyed online discussions so started a blog to control one.
  • 0 (0%) Really enjoy writing, so a blog seemed like an obvious thing for me to start.
  • 2 (40%) Felt strongly about a topic (wars or otherwise) and wanted to write about it.
  • 0 (0%) Just wanted a place to rant, share my opinions, etc.

04 December 2008

The benefits and enjoyment of blogging ...

... are becoming apparent to me. When I began this blog, it was primarily a way for me to become acquainted with the process, language, and basics - since I had never blogged (or even commented on blogs) before - but it has quickly become much more than that. I am pleasantly surprised that between 24 Nov and today - less than 2 weeks - over 100 unique visitors have stopped by this blog (161 since 19 Nov!). The tracking process that I use doesn't show me how long they stayed or how much they read, but just the fact that so many people were at least interested in this topic is very encouraging. What's even more encouraging is that these folks are accessing the blog from 14 different countries! Amazing! Of course, that probably doesn't mean that there are 14 different nationalities - some are likely US service members serving overseas - but one German public affairs officer has left some comments.

This interest is very encouraging. It is clear that many people are interested in how the Army can make better use of blogs and new media in general. I'm encouraged by the variety of comments (from service members, retirees, spouses, and professors of communication) all of which shine a unique light on this subject and all of which provide valuable insights.

One of the benefits of blogging that I have read about and some of you have alluded to in the comments is the community aspect - the interaction. That has already become clear to me through this experience ... and this blog has only been in the blogosphere for about one month. In that month, I've learned a tremendous amount, been pointed in new directions for material to dig into, and gathered valuable insights into how the Army can approach Soldier blogging to greater effect. Lets keep the discussion going ... please continue to share your insights and opinions as well as any other work that's been done that may assist in making this project as useful as possible.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to peruse the discussion going on. Thanks to all of you who participate in the weekly polls - the feedback provided through those help me focus my thoughts and opinions about blogging. Thanks even more to those of you who have taken the time to weigh in on the discussion. Several of you have provided valuable insight into milblogging and have linked me to material that will have a great impact on this project. Thanks especially to the 8 of you who have chosen to "follow" this blog! Your interest is greatly appreciated. If you're not a "follower" but are interested in this discussion, please consider becoming a "follower" (look to the right).

I look forward to continuing to learn from you and, together, developing valuable suggestions for the Army to more effectively put "Soldiers in the Blogosphere."