23 March 2009

Would you use "interactive" FMs?

As this project about blogs kind of winds down, I keep thinking about other ways that we (the Army) could make better use of the new media technologies. One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of "interactive" FMs.

Imagine that when you open up an FM or TM or any other manual through the digital library that you could leave comments - maybe something you did to implement doctrine in an operation or training exercies, maybe an idea for better organizing your unit, maybe some after action comments about how something went. Then imagine that when the manual describes something and refers to a figure, that figure is interactive - you can click on various aspects of it for more detail, or maybe it's animated to show the progression of a process.

We already have a process in place for sharing our ideas and comments through the center for lessons learned, but the rest of the Army doesn't benefit from those until the next edition of the manual is released. This "interactive" FM would speed up that process dramatically!

What do you think? Is this idea worth pursuing? Or is it off-the-mark? Weigh in by leaving comments - and take part in the current poll!

14 March 2009

WOTN contributing to the discussion

The writer of War on Terror News has recently contributed to this discussion about the role of milblogs. He's got some good comments that are worth the read if you haven't already. For some reason, he can't post comments on this blog, so he's left comments at Milblogging.com and has addressed the subject on his own blog (a couple of times). A couple of highlights worth repeating here.

On the need for trust:

Officers are often weary of the Troops acting like teenagers or publically embarrassing themselves and hence their command and the Military itself, but it is often the Commander as well as the Private that ends up chastised for the mistake. NCO's implement the policies, even when they disagree with them.

But the Troops will rise to the expectations of their leaders. If leaders expect the Troops to act maturely, they will. If the leaders treat the Troops like kids, they'll act like kids. In both cases, someone will break the rules, someone will screw the pooch, and someone will get in trouble, but it is a LOT easier to lead mature Troops empowered to make decisions and trusted to make decisions, that understand the boundaries, than kids that must be told when and what to do at every turn.

On the value and risk of blogging under your own name vs a pen-name:
One part of maintaining OPSEC in MilBlogs is to prevent identification of to what unit the blogger is assigned, hence where he is assigned, hence what his duties are. This is achieved by a "pen name," i.e. anonymity. If "Joe Soldier," (a one time contributor here) were to blog about an operation he was on "somewhere in Iraq" or even "somewhere in Anbar," it would still be possible to research and dig in to find out who he was or where, but it would take a lot more work than if he listed those in his about page. Witnesses to the events and those knowledgeable of the person would likely figure out who he was but the casual reader and even the dedicated reader might not be able to recognize him even if they walked past him

Further, it is important for the Troops to protect their families from potential threats. It is simply too easy in today's world of information and technology to take a few details and figure out where and who a person is. With Troops being on the front lines, their families are at risk not only from terrorism but from identity theft and criminals. There is no way that I would tell the world where my family was one less observer down or tell "Jody" where a lonely wife was. "Jody" and criminals are good enough at figuring those things out without my help. Hometown news releases already help them.

He's got lots of good thought in his own posts and several other interesting points are brought up in the comments to them. I encourage you to read them, think about them, and weigh in on the discussion!

I appreciate all the discussion about this subject on this blog and elsewhere. Certainly, the more people who weigh in on it the better the solutions that will be generated ... and that's really what it's all about. Solving problems, not just talking or complaining about them!

09 March 2009

Concluding the Recommendations

I can hear the sighs of relief now (or are those sighs of wanting more?). Over the past couple of weeks, I've outlined what I think are the most important recommendations that the Army can implement in very short order. These recommendations were based on several months of research, discussion with public affairs professionals, and, of course, through dialogue on this blog. Thanks again for participating in the discussion here. Now, the conclusion of the recommendations ...

New media is being increasingly used by citizens and businesses. Blogs are numerous and regularly read by many. YouTube is among today’s most popular websites. Businesses use new media to better engage with their customers. The military has incorporated several capabilities of new media in service portals to improve communication and facilitate professional dialogue. When blogs first surfaced in large numbers at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army reacted first by banning posts but quickly modified that policy to provide oversight of Soldiers blogging. Since this time, the Army has struggled with deciding whether to embrace or ban new media engagement by Soldiers. The result is poorly articulated policy and a perception that the Army wants to muffle its Soldiers in the public arena. Many senior leaders recognize that this is not effective policy and recommend the Army make more effective use of new media.

By not just allowing but encouraging Soldiers to blog, the Army will improve strategic communications, improve public perception of the institution, and not increase the risk of OPSEC violations. In this paper, it has been shown that of three options - maintain the status quo, ban new media use by Soldiers, or encourage and enable new media engagement – the best thing to do is to encourage Soldiers to engage new media. Soldier blogging fits in the principles of strategic communication and public affairs’ fundamentals of information. Additionally, allowing Soldiers to blog not only gets more stories about the Army’s accomplishments out to the public, by having Soldiers rather than public affairs professionals writing the stories improves the credibility of such accounts. This, in turn, will undoubtedly improve the public perception of the Army as an organization that values and trusts its Soldiers.

Such a decision must not be made blindly, of course. In order to make this change, new training programs must be developed. These programs must stress the importance of OPSEC and make clear to Soldiers how OPSEC principles apply to online activity. Importantly, these training programs must also teach Soldiers to be effective writers and provide guidance on developing interesting blogs that will draw readers in and keep them coming back.

Such a decision can also not be made without a level of trust of Soldiers. Leaders must develop clearly articulated policies that enable Soldiers to understand the limits placed upon them when blogging, but these policies must also make it clear that the organizations leadership trusts its Soldiers to behave appropriately online. This trust must be articulated, but it must also be exhibited. Commanders can spot check their Soldiers blogs to ensure they are following the rules, but care must be taken that the blogs remain unique, honest, and open – the Army must avoid doing anything that creates the impression that Soldier blogs are puppets for public affairs or their unit commanders.

By developing effective training programs and clear policies, the Army can safely and effectively encourage Soldiers to blog and engage other new media. This is not something that should be done simply because new media is “all the rage” among the civilian community. It is something that should be done to improve the Army’s communication and dialogue with the American public – the public whose support is critical during long, important wars like the ones currently underway. Encouraging the use of new media by Soldiers and units can assist in achieving victory in the War for Public Opinion.

08 March 2009

Educate Soldiers to be Effective Communicators

Just as important as ensuring they understand the application of OPSEC to the web, Soldiers must be educated to be effective communicators. They must be able to clearly articulate the story they have to tell, make it readable and interesting, and be aware of the best ways to get that story out to the most people possible. This is where the Army should focus the bulk of its education and training efforts concerning new media. This training should be made available to all Soldiers but not required. During regular OPSEC training, when the discussion turns to the web the offer should be made for those interested Soldiers to attend a focused session about engaging new media.

In this new media training session, it would be most effective to begin with a few examples of successful blogs. Aside from providing motivation by demonstrating how effective and far reaching many Soldiers’ blogs have become, this will also make some important points about blog layout, subject matter, and the use of pictures, videos, and other items that make blogs more appealing. Knowing that most of the widely read milblogs are written well, this training session must also review basic composition skills – a refresher on creative writing. The bulk of the training session must address the basics of blogging. Most blog hosting sites provide an interface that is very easy to work within, so the focus of the training should not be on how to set up the blog. Rather, the focus is more properly on discussing best practices: regularity of posting, accepting and monitoring comments from readers, additional features to add to the blog, and interactive features to generate and maintain interest. The training should also provide Soldiers with tips for successful blog creation: where to register their blog, how to generate interest initially, how to maintain interest and increase readership, and ideas.

Part of training Soldiers to effectively engage new media should focus on applying the fundamentals of information described in public affairs doctrine. These fundamentals are: tell the truth, provide timely information, practice security at the source, provide consistent information at all levels, and tell the DOD story.

With integrity as one of our core values and the importance of honesty in all we do, this fundamental to “tell the truth” is already a fundamental of soldiering. Blogs offer a key advantage over other forms of traditional PA when it comes to providing timely information. One recent best practices publication by the military’s public affairs community stated that blogging “empowers the average person, regardless of their background and qualifications, to rapidly distribute both information and analysis” (emphasis mine). In the public affairs community the importance of getting the story out fast is emphasized: “The first side that presents the information sets the context and fames the public debate. It is extremely important to get factual, complete, truthful information out first”. As long as Soldiers are cleared to discuss the issue, mission, or event, their blogs are one of the quickest way to get information out. By ensuring adequate OPSEC training and understanding, leaders can safely trust Soldiers to practice security at the source.

Consistency is critical when presenting a story. In fact, inconsistency will reduce credibility. Consistency in this regard does not mean every level must be telling the same story verbatim; rather, each person/level’s story must not contradict another. Ensuring Soldiers understand that talking points apply to online activity can help prevent contradictions. Talking points and command messages can help Soldiers understand how they fit into the big picture. This understanding will likely influence their writing and help ensure consistency while still allowing them to remain unique and not appear as puppets for the Army. Blogs are a great way to tell the Army’s story – by Soldiers telling theirs. By encouraging Soldiers to blog about their experiences, they will provide more information of interest and useful to the public we serve. Major General Bergner, a recent spokesperson for Multi-National Force-Iraq, clearly sees the benefit that Soldiers’ blogging brings to the Army in telling its story:

It's the personal aspect of what bloggers are able to convey. No one can
do it with the same personal insights, the perspective, and the texture that
comes with those dialogues. That is what is so meaningful for the American
people and so important for the Army because all of us want Soldiers to be able
to tell their story, like only a Soldier can do.

07 March 2009

Educate Soldiers about Online OPSEC

Ensuring our Soldiers practice security when blogging requires two things: proper education and trust. Proper education comes in several forms, one of which already exists as a regular training requirement for soldiers. Annually, every Soldier must attend a training session about OPSEC. This training is conducted at the unit level and typically consists of standard training material coupled with information specific to their unit and/or location. Adding discussion about how the principles of OPSEC apply to all manners of transmitting information will ensure Soldiers understand all aspects of OPSEC. Several slide presentations prepared by the 1st Information Operations Command provide an excellent basis for any unit to use when educating their Soldiers about the security risks of online activity and how to be an honest and interesting blogger while still maintaining appropriate OPSEC.

In accordance with the Army's current blogging policy, before a Soldier is authorized to blog about anything pertaining to the military they must have a conversation with their commander and their unit security officer. The security officer must cover in detail how OPSEC applies to the Soldier’s blog and things they should be very careful about when blogging. After providing quality education and training and maintaining a register of all websites maintained by Soldiers in their command, commanders must then trust their Soldiers to practice proper security while blogging. Commanders can certainly spot check Soldiers’ blog entries, but this will not prevent security breaches: it will only identify them after they have occurred. Preventing the breach in the first place requires the Soldier to be fully aware of what can and cannot be posted as well as being aware of methods the enemy uses to piece together bits of information gained from around the wide variety of open sources. Knowing that their commanders may spot check their blog at any time may motivate Soldiers to think clearly about any possible security violations in a draft post and remove them before posting. This requires the commander to trust his Soldiers online just as he trusts them with a weapon and the mission.

06 March 2009

Recommendation #3: Train Soldiers to Engage New Media

What, only one day on Recommendation #2, but nearly a week on #1? Yep. Now on to #3 (don't worry, this one will take a couple of days too ...

Once policy has been developed and distributed, the command can turn its attention to properly training their Soldiers for this new activity. Units must develop training that interests, inspires, and educates our Soldiers to be effective in helping to tell the Army's story while ensuring they are fully aware of the challenges and risks. The Army already requires regular training about operational security. Adding discussion about how that applies to web content is simple. Most soldiers already understand what OPSEC is, why it is important, and their role in it. Applying that knowledge to the web is not much of a stretch and several effective training presentations exist for download through AKO. The two main parts to training Soldiersto effectively engage new media are understanding of OPSEC and educating them to be effective communicators. More on those two topics over the next two days (can you guess which one I'll write about first?)

05 March 2009

Recommendation #2: Revise Policy and Update Regulations

Yes, the previous several days have all been part of Recommendation #1. Now, on to #2 ...

Before developing training plans for organizations to use in developing their Soldiers to be effective bloggers, the Army must develop well thought out policies that articulate the intent for Soldier engagement of new media, outline all requirements for Soldiers to understand, and describe the risks of such engagement and measures to reduce these risks. LTG Caldwell has published a blogging policy for the US Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) which provides a great starting point for any organization’s policy on this subject. The policy instructs all members of the CAC to fully attribute the posting to themselves (to include name, position and organization). Concerning content, the policy stipulates that all blog entries must be 100% accurate, based only on personal experience or observation and clearly documented if not, not contain any sensitive, classified, or derogatory information, not discuss tactics, techniques, and procedures that have not already been released, and will not contain political bias or violate any legal regulations.

In addition to organizational policies, the Army’s public affairs doctrine (AR 360-1) must be revised to better describe the role of individual Soldiers in communicating the Army’s story. As part of this revision, guidance and expectations for use of new media by both individuals and organizations must be detailed. The current version of the regulation contains a very vague paragraph about the use of the internet for publishing information: this must be dramatically expanded. The ideas set forth in this paper form the framework for these revisions. AR 530-1, Operations Security, also needs revision to clarify the requirements for Soldiers who decide to blog. These requirements must be clearly articulated, unlike the current version which required the publishing of a fact sheet to clarify the policy.

04 March 2009

Engaging YouTube

New media is about much more than simply blogs. YouTube has taken the world by storm and over the past few years it has grown to be much more than just posting random goofiness. People now post messages, short films or animation they have created, trailers for movies, and footage from their combat experiences. Current Army policy bans the use of YouTube on government computers claiming excessive bandwidth needs. However, some Army leaders believe that YouTube offers distinct advantages to getting messages out and countering insurgent videos and propaganda.

The Army recently launched its own version of YouTube called TroopTube. The Army pitches it as a way to boost morale for deployed Soldiers by providing a site to send video messages back and forth with home. While TroopTube is not a bad idea it will not replace YouTube for three reasons. First, this new video site cannot compete with the YouTube brand name - people know it, go to it, talk about it and it offers something that appeals to nearly everyone. TroopTube, on the other hand, is focused on a narrow topic and a small group of people. Secondly, it requires an account which, although available to anyone (not just military members) will turn some people away. Finally, it is censored. Instead of simply trusting Soldiers and family members to post responsibly, videos can be edited and must be approved. While this is not inherently a bad thing – the Army should absolutely do its best to project a positive image - the perception that this censorship creates is potentially harmful.

TroopTube will not get videos seen around the world by a broad audience - only YouTube will be able to do this. If the Army is to capitalize on new media, it must authorize use of the new media. If more control is desired, use of YouTube is best restricted to particular people in an organization such as PAOs or unit commanders. Just as with blogs, the Army must educate Soldiers to understand how OPSEC applies to all things posted to the internet and techniques to prepare videos that will capture people's attention and convey the important messages that need to be told.

The two elements of new media that offer the largest advantage to the Army are blogs and YouTube. Other popular social networking sites have little to offer the Army as it seeks new ways to get its story told to the public. While they offer a way to remain connected with friends and family, this is not much beyond an individual or recreational benefit and the policy toward these sites should remain as it currently is written. Policy on blogs and YouTube, however, needs to be revised.

03 March 2009

Some discussion about CGSC blog policy

There's some very thoughtful discussion going on over at the CAC blogs regarding the CGSC policy that all students in that course publish at least one blog entry during the course of their study. Judging from the number, detail, and length of many of the comments there are some strong opinions on both sides of this issue. The posts address the following questions. They're worth a read.
They both bring up some points that should be considered as folks work on revising the Army's blogging policy. Commanders would also be well advised to consider these points as they develop unit-level policies for Soldier engagement of new media.

The Benefit of Unit Blogs

In addition to individual Soldier blogging exploits, there is benefit for individual units to maintain blogs. There exist a growing number of blogs created by military organizations which 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. To improve their effect, a unit blog should be maintained by a responsible and effective writer within the organization. The blog should provide information similar to what is often provided to families through family readiness channels or to the public through press releases. A unit blog could also maintain links to blogs of Soldiers in the organization. This would provide a way for the organization to keep up with its Soldiers’ blogs and, more importantly, provide interested readers with a more detail on the activities of that 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.

02 March 2009

Defensive Blogging

Not all Soldiers will be interested in maintaining their own blog. They can still play an important role in helping the Army in getting its message out correctly and completely. I refer to this idea as “defensive blogging”: peruse other blogs and leave comments to correct, complete, or amplify a point in a story written by others. Perhaps someone has written a post about an operation that the Soldier was involved in or about a recent change in Army policy that affects the Soldier. Posting comments on other blogs is a way to get the Soldiers opinions (and facts) out to a broader audience. This is particularly important if incorrect information is being posted and discussed in blogs. Military members have an obligation to set the record straight when incorrect information is posted publicly, and must do so in a transparent manner to avoid the appearance of the military trying to covertly impact public opinion.

The concept of defensive blogging is already being implemented at the combatant command level. CENTCOM does not maintain their own blog but they actively engage other blogs by leaving comments. The CENTCOM bloggers are required to be completely open about who they are and who they work for when leaving comments on a blog. This is a very reasonable requirement. According to reports about this operation, the comments they leave have been received favorably and part of that is due to their transparency.

Having a small organized team with the task of trudging through the blogosphere and correcting or completing stories about an organization seems a very valid and important use of resources. This should be considered by all major commands in the Army but it is probably not practical or necessary to have an organized team like this at the battalion or brigade level. At those levels the Army should empower Soldiers to perform the mission. This is, admittedly, a bit more risky because it is not controlled. This risk can be mitigated if Soldiers are provided with information, power, and trust. The Air Force recently published guidance in the form of a blog assessment flowchart for their PA officers to use. It is perfectly suited for individual Soldiers and could easily be included in any training provided as well as in published guidance.

01 March 2009

Blogging to Increase the Army’s Credibility

Encouraging Soldiers to blog demonstrates a willingness to truthfully share our stories. Nothing will be more self-defeating than to be perceived as dishonest whether when speaking to the media or posting to a personal blog. The American public perceives that the military is willing to and does provide inaccurate information to the media. Additionally, the media believes the military is restrictive in providing access and that officers are not encouraged to speak with reporters. Soldier blogs can 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 that they have been a part of. In order to further demonstrate openness and honesty, Soldiers should blog under their own name and be transparent about their rank, experience, and type of military occupation. Many like to blog under creative pseudonyms, but by posting under their own name credibility will be easier to achieve. This is not asking for something extraordinary: nearly half of all bloggers already blog under their own name.

Encouraging Soldiers to blog about personal experiences will result in two potential outcomes. 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 are being read, shared, and linked to, perhaps mainstream media will see the appetite that exists and begin to publish more such stories on their own initiative.

The most important and interesting story for Soldiers to tell is their own. However, the Army can gain more strategic impact on public opinion if Soldiers blog entries corroborate the stories being told through official channels. By this I do not mean that the Soldiers simply repeat what official press releases say. If Soldiers are seen as puppets, this would have a detrimental impact on their credibility. If, however, the stories Soldiers tell further enlighten and personalize the information from press releases or other stories in main stream media, this could have a positive impact for the Army.

One way to accomplish this is to provide talking points for Soldiers to consider when blogging. This is no different than what we currently do in operations where Soldiers may have contact with mainstream media. The Army provides talking points to Soldiers to prepare them to intelligently engage the media about current operations. Soldiers are not simply given phrases to repeat to any question; rather, they are informed of the operation’s intent, provided with some background and key points that we desire the public to hear, and then instructed to talk about what they know and what they do – to “stay in their lane.” What I propose is that this same model be applied to the blogosphere. Provide Soldiers with their command’s talking points and encourage them to blog about what they know and what they do. When doing so, it must be made clear that Soldiers are not demanded to always include talking points in their blog entries. Rather, the Army should educate Soldiers about the strategic impact that blogging can have, inform them of the higher commanders’ intents, and allow them to tell stories of their choosing in their own words.