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.

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