Permission to tweet: The U.S. Military on Twitter

Preface: In June of 2009 I began a graduate course at University of Washington that focused on the ways that Twitter has changed organizational communication. As part of this course we set out to research and write a book about over 100 different organizations and how they’ve used Twitter. Due to my timely connections with the U.S. Coast Guard, I focused my chapter on how the military was using Twitter at the time. Many things have changed in the months since this research began and I’ll admit I’m beginning to lose track as I’ve moved on to other interests. Any comments you have are much appreciated!
Thanks to Professor Kathy Gill for editing & guidance.

Permission to tweet: The U.S. Military on Twitter

On Friday, February 25, 2010 a military policy[1] was set in place regarding social media that marks a new era for U.S troops and their civilian counterparts. This new policy reflects the overwhelming need for standardization as well as modernization within the U.S. military and in many ways validates the ever-more popular concept of online communities being used for official and unofficial communication.

The U.S. military has long had an uneasy relationship with Internet technology, despite the fact that it is the direct progeny of a military network, ARPANET [1]. Scott Testa, a professor of business at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, told Federal Computer Week, “During the early days of e-mail, the DOD — and other agencies that are very sensitive to security — was very nervous about having and using e-mail [2].”

That nervousness extended to computer networking sites used to officially promote the armed services. In 2006, both the U.S. Marines Corps and the U.S. Air Force debuted MySpace pages. In September, the Air Force let visitors vote on one of five commercials; the winner ran on September 18. Yet on September 19, the Air Force shuttered about the MySpace profile over concerns related to “inappropriate content” on MySpace, not security. Illustrating the inconsistencies in military approach to these services, in November the Johnny-come-lately U.S. Army debuted a MySpace profile [5].

The August 2009 announcement is a logical extension of a May 2007 Department of Defense declaration that banned unclassified workstations from access to YouTube and MySpace and a handful of other sites “to ensure DOD networks are available for combat operations and critical activities [6].” Facebook, however, was not on that banned list; neither was Twitter. Perversely, the Pentagon was still defending the ban in October 2007 as the Army was promoting its YouTube and Flickr pages on its own websites [2, 7].

A year later, the military was in back track mode. As Wired reported in May 2008 [8]:

As the military continues to struggle with social media, a familiar pattern has emerged: Sites are initially labeled as sieves for secrets; then, after further inspection, those early assessments are often turned on their heads. In 2006, for example, the Army assembled a unit to monitor official sites and soldiers’ blogs for OPSEC, or operational security, transgressions. After a year, they discovered that the official pages were 65 times more likely to violate security rules.

In November 2008, the Pentagon launched TroopTube.tv, its own video sharing site [9]. The Air Force promptly banned TroopTube in March 2009 [10]. As of February 2010, the first 12 video videos on the site’s “top favorited” page had views ranging from 25 to 1684, with an average view of 554. [2]

If you’re keeping score, we now have three publicly stated reasons for banning access: inappropriate content on the site itself (MySpace), network robustness and operational security transgressions. None have survived scrutiny. Addressing the network security argument, former FBI special agent Eric M. Fiterman[3] wrote [11]:

[S]ocial nets themselves don’t present a level of risk that we haven’t seen before. Sure, social nets can host and transmit malicious code, but so can a website or e-mail system.

At the same time that the U.S. military was tightening the computer network noose, one of our closest military allies, Britain’s Ministry of Defence, “encouraged members of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces to use social media to keep the public — such as friends and family — informed, while being mindful of operational security [12].”

The dance of caution, uncertainty and unease that surrounds U.S. military use of social media makes any military use of Twitter a remarkable feat. And although the powers-that-be may not want the average Jane or Joe to access sites like Twitter or Facebook from their workstations, those same powers understand that the military has to tell its story in these venues. This chapter is a testament to pragmatism, at least at the administrative and officer level.

For example, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen (@TheJointStaff), has been leveraging social media by taking public questions via YouTube and using Twitter to promote the process since April of 2008. Admiral Mullen’s popularity (he has more than 15,000 followers) suggests many people use Twitter as a way to publicly connect with individuals who otherwise would be inaccessible.

And yet when I attempted to visit Twitter.com on my government workstation in September, 2009, I could not interact with Admiral Mullen. Instead, I saw a message stating that Twitter is blocked due to it being a “dating/personals” site. This inaccurate description completely ignores not only Twitter’s ability to connect public servants with the people they serve, it ignores the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is using the medium!

Today, “nearly two-thirds of the military’s 2.4 million members are ‘digital natives’ who grew up with fingers on mousepads, not pencils on paper.” [4] This statistic alone shows why the military not only needs to use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate, it needs to allow its recruits, G.I.’s staff and officers to use these sites to communicate with their family and friends. To block access to these communication tools would be like blocking access to the phone for an earlier generation.

This chapter celebrates those in the Armed Forces who are pushing boundaries. I’ll explain why we should care if and how the military uses Twitter, and I’ll focus on why everyone should be allowed access to conversations pertaining to them. I will show that when used correctly, Twitter’s return on investment is particularly high. These methods may also apply to other large, secretive organizations where information is more likely to flow through a chain of command than move through a peer-to-peer network.

A distinction needs to be made before we go any further. There are at least two categories of Twitter profiles. There are IDs specifically set up for an organization or agency, and there are personal IDs that are sometimes branded in a way that makes them look like an organization ID (for example, @USNavySeals). Within the military, personal IDs can be used for both personal messages (family and friends) and official business. Public affairs staff tweet for many top ranking military officials, such as the Commandant of the Coast Guard, meaning that those Twitter handles are strictly work related. Others mix personal tweets with official business.

Why should the military use Twitter?

The military was specifically chosen for this book because it is one of the largest and arguably most controversial economic sectors that could benefit by using social networks like Twitter. Taken as a whole, the military is an extremely complex organization. As of October 2, 2009, there were 1,156,000 active duty military and 712,000 civilian personnel scattered around the globe.[6] A myriad of regulations restrict how all of those government computers may be used for official business, but Twitter should be one of the acceptable ones.

For most of the 20th century, Americans were on the receiving end of one-way communication from their government. Military propaganda came of age during World War I, thanks in part to the “The Father of Spin” Edward Bernays [14, 15]. The federal government “institutionalized propaganda and public relations” during the New Deal [14]. In February 2009, the Associated Press reported that spending on “media and outreach” had doubled in the prior five years, to at least $4.7 billion. Chris Tomlinson writes, “That’s almost as much as [the Pentagon] spent on body armor for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2006 [16].”

Today there are a host of free tools, like Twitter, that could be used to do more than broadcast one-way messages. As I will show, Twitter is an essential part of the 21st century crisis communication toolkit, and it can be used effectively for both customer service and recruiting. I’ll begin with crisis communication.

Crisis Communication

First, Twitter can be a valuable component in the crisis communications toolkit, both for monitoring and for responding. On March 23, 2009, CNN tweeted that a C-17 transport had crashed near Olney, Texas. Within 30 minutes, skeptical posts began entering the Twitter stream; the Air Force corrected the record in less than an hour [17, 18, 19].

Tweet: @afpaa 3-23-09

Figure 1.1.

The Air Force public affairs office set a precedent for quick response that was tested only two days later in a similar incident in which an F22 did crash in California. Again, the Air Force used Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public.

Tweet: @afpaa 3-25-09

Figure 1.2.

The Air Force public affairs posted four more times before explaining that they were attempting to locate family members before they released details.

Tweet: @afpaa 3-25-09

Figure 1.3.

It is unlikely that @AFPAA would have been this successful in responding to real-time discussion had it not been for a 12-point plan (flow chart) for responding to a “web posting” developed under the guidance of Captain David Faggard, the Air Force “designated social media guru” [20].

Through Faggard’s leadership, the public affairs team has a developed a straightforward process (think “field manual”) to follow when anyone encounters a “web post.” The flow chart begins with a simple question: is the post positive or balanced? Next step: evaluation. If the Airman thinks the post is balanced or positive, the choices are to respond or not. But if the answer to that first question is no, the evaluation stage is more complex and requires making judgments: is this a troll, is the post a rant, is the post factually inaccurate or is it someone who has had a bad experience (unhappy customer). Each assessment has a suggested course of action.

Should an airman choose to respond to the post, Faggard’s team has tips: be transparent (disclose your Air Force affiliation), provide sources for your facts, take your time, think about your tone (it reflects on the Air Force) and be miserly with your time (focus on sites that are related to the Air Force, that are influential). These are good guidelines for anyone (or any organization) to adopt.

"counter-blogging" flow chart

Figure 1.4.

Collaboration is a first cousin to crisis communication, and Twitter is a wizard at both. Robert Carey, head of the USN Chief Information Office, explains that social media “pools collective wisdom to potentially leverage all available resources [22].” But the Air Force did not act quickly enough on that pooled wisdom on April 27, 2009. A White House official had authorized a low fly-over of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as a photo-op for Air Force One [23].

A special Air Force unit at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida tracked Twitter, YouTube and various blogs to assess the backlash to the Air Force One and to recommend a response. Soon there was one tweet per minute talking about pair of F-16s chasing a commercial airliner. The next day, there were three tweets per minute, and “New York” had become a trending topic [24].

For that one-month period in 2009, the Air Force public affairs office was batting 0.666. It could very easily have been batting zero. Intimate involvement with the Twitter ecosystem made the difference; I think that’s a positive return-on-investment.

Customer Service
Another way organizations are using Twitter is for customer service. Who is the military’s number one customer? Arguably it is all Americans. We all pay taxes and expect the military to protect us. Why not put some of our tax money to work facilitating interaction?

Coast Guard Commander M. Andre Billeaudeaux started the Citizen Action Network (CAN), an example of this type of citizen interaction with the military. CAN is comprised of Coast Guard trained volunteers who live on the beaches of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The Coast Guard training enables the volunteers to actively watch our coastlines and report suspicious or potentially dangerous activities. The Coast Guard also calls the volunteers from time to time if they are looking for something in the vicinity of these volunteers. If a system like Twitter were used to support efforts like this, the Coast Guard and other Homeland defense agencies could provide a clear, open channel for information to be distributed in both directions. Citizens could receive the latest updates about activity in their area and public servants would receive tips that could save money and ultimately lives.

In the past, Commander Billeaudeaux has not been able to fully implement Web 2.0 technologies like Twitter because of access restrictions. In an interview with the Naval Post-Graduate School he said [25]:

In the military and especially the Coast Guard, our leaders need to keep in mind the public they serve, if we’re not doing everything possible to keep them informed and to listen to their responses then we maybe completing our missions but we aren’t serving the public.

As founder of the Citizen’s Action Network, Billeaudeaux has arguably been the one of the most vocal proponents within the military for increased public involvement. In the interview, he explains that his goal has always been better communication between the public and the Coast Guard and ultimately with all government agencies. What better way is there to improve communication than to create online communities with the tools used by the public?

Part of that improved dialog envisioned by Billeaudeaux has to include communication with families. In the U.K., troops have been encouraged by the Ministry of Defence to use Twitter to communicate with their friends and family [12]. Even if only one person from a company, regiment, or battalion tweets, it can make it easier for family and friends to better understand what their loved-ones are going through.

Recruiting

In addition to dealing with communication crises or communicating with specific publics in a customer service role, the military could use Twitter as a recruiting tool. In 2005, more than half of the 78,000 personnel recruited by the Army found their way to a contract via the web [26].

Recruiters should to be searching for conversations that mention the armed services and directly contact those who have shown interest in the military. Twitter should never be used to target specific individuals and get them to join. It is perfect, however for providing those interested with relevant information needed to make an educated decision.

mynavymyfuture10-6-08

Figure 1.5.

Despite these examples of how Twitter can be used proactively, to interact with key publics, that’s not how most of the Armed Services use social media. Michael Brito (@britopian), a former Marine who is also vice president of Edelman Digital, interviewed Major Dan Ward of the U.S. Air Force in June 2009 [13]. Major Ward noted that “the military primarily uses social media for broadcast purposes.” He continued:

Part of the key to social media is the ‘ambient intimacy’ it creates, that persistent, real-time connection between people. And that’s the special sauce that’s missing from the way the military uses social media right now. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually – it’s just a question of how long it’ll take.

As you can see from these examples, the armed forces target audience for recruiting is already to some extent finding the military online. Unfortunately Twitter continues to be one of the online platforms where involvement on behalf of the armed forces has been stifled.

A Branch-by-Branch Review

How do the Armed Services compare in their use of Twitter and who are the key players in each branch?

The Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard is a fascinating case study because it’s governed by the Department of Homeland Security but it also interfaces directly with the Department of Defense. As technologies that provide a more open model of communication evolve, all of the U.S. Armed Forces have to think about securing their networks from harm.

One of the most influential proponents of social media in the military is the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen. Admiral Allen began the iCommandant Web Journal[5] (using the Blogger platform) on a .mil site in September 2008. The next month, he created his Twitter ID (@iCommandantUSCG).

In July 2009, he announced on the blog that he would be expanding his use of Twitter.[7] In response to this, I and several others commented that Twitter was blocked on the majority of Coast Guard computers.[8] His team quickly responded that “when the discussion might be of significant internal interest,” they would re-post the tweets to the blog [27]. This is a stop-gap measure, but the response signaled an understanding of our challenges.

In a Q & A with Coast Guard blogger Jim Dolbow, Admiral Allen was the first service chief to discuss the relationship between military history and new social media [28].

Q: What role do you see new social media having in preserving, analyzing and interpreting coast guard history for both the Coast Guard and the American people?

ADM. ALLEN: Well, Jim, I think it’s got great, great application to make visible to a lot of people who don’t have access to Coast Guard history the very rich and cultural traditions of the Coast Guard… We have our traditional sites on the .mil domain. I think ultimately we’re going to have to go across the air gap and figure out a way to get more information out there with wider access to the American public. And we’re actively talking about how we can shift a lot of our content from .mil to .com, and I think that is a way forward.

Shifting unclassified content from .mil to .com seems like a fairly straightforward affair, until you recall than the Air Force promptly blocked the Pentagon’s TroopTube, which was not hosted on a .mil server.

Commandant’s Twitter handle offers an example of a Twitter account set up for national distribution. However, there are more regional offices than national heads. Let’s turn to the U.S. Coast Guard District 13 (@uscgd13) public affairs office to see how a small agency implements Twitter.

Public Affairs Chief Paul Roszkowski explained in an interview that very little training has been developed regarding Twitter, reflecting the perceived novelty of the tool. In the summer of 2009, Chief Roszkowski developed a guide for his team from scratch. Within this unofficial guide are recommendations for link-shortening services, analytics, and, most importantly, how to save tweets in order to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

There is a wide range of types of tweets for @uscgd13: about half are auto-generated using Twitterfeed, which broadcasts the District’s Google-hosted blog and YouTube channel.[8] TweetDeck is the primary client used for human-authored tweets. Almost one-quarter of the District’s tweets are interactions, either @replies or RTs, which reflects a great deal of community interaction. After the Haiti earthquake, District 13 used Twitter to highlight Coast Guard humanitarian efforts; during the Olympics, to showcase joint border patrols with Canada.

Air Force

Captain David Faggard, chief of emerging technology at the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Agency (@AFPAA) at the Pentagon, is in charge of paving the way for the Air Force’s 330,000 communicators to engage with social media. Faggard spoke with David Scott in December 2008: “It’s our role to provide a clear and accurate, completely truthful and transparent picture for any audience” with his ultimate dream being that “every single Airman is an on-line communicator [29].”

To that end, Faggard ‘s emerging technology team developed New Media And The Air Force, one of the few comprehensive social media guides created by the military that is also available to the public.[10] Designed specifically to help Airmen communicate the Air Force story Web audiences, it includes social media guidelines and examples, industry practices, statistics on how airmen use social media, and tips for measuring and evaluating communication. One of my favorite tips is “Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.” Unfortunately the vast majority of Air Force personnel are just now being given the chance to make calculated risks because they were not trusted to use Twitter on their work computers in the past.

The hard work and dedication of social media test pilot’s such as Captain David Faggard really shine through when as we switch our focus to the smaller public affairs offices. The 180th Fighter Wing (@180thFW) in Swanton, OH led by MSgt Beth Holliker Public Affairs Manager is one such example. Almost all of their tweets are human-authored from their primary client Tweetie or the web. A small percentage are cross fed from Facebook, but almost half of the Fighter Wings’s tweets are interactions, either @replies or RTs, reflecting a firm understanding of the need for community interaction.

Navy

Navy sailors do have workstations access to most social media sites like Twitter. Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenn Womble told the Navy Times that there are “no restrictions on the use of social media beyond Defense Department guidelines [29]. Many people, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, hope that branches like the Marines can find a way to allow access to social media sites while maintaining vital network security.

In an interview done by Kurt Vanderah and posted on socialmedia.org, U.S. Navy’s Director of Emerging Media Integration, Scott McIlnay explains the Navy’s Social Media integration and strategy. Like other corporate PR directors, McIlnay says “their mission includes advocacy, policy, training, best practices, management, metrics and analysis, identify emerging trends, and keeping focus over the horizon.”

Like many other pioneers of social media in the military, McIlnay feels training is a one of the primary issues that needs to be focused on. “Sailors and their families don’t understand the impact that they can have in the social media world.” In the interview he cites the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and subsequent online searches once the news got out that the USS Carl Vision was being rerouted to Haiti. The Navy worked directly with sailors to help them with their existing social media presence or setting up a new presence where it didn’t exist. McIlnay credits social media with significantly contributing to their ability to communicate news about the Navy’s involvement in Haiti. [30]

The Navy’s primary Twitter ID for external news is @NavyNews. With over 9k followers and approx. twenty tweets (primarily from the web) per day, Navy News has a Klout score of 67 and is categorized as a persona, or personal brand identity. For a military news ID, I surprised to find that over one-quarter of Navy News tweets are @replies and just over ten percent are RTs.

More info on the Navy:

Navy Social Media Directory: http://www.navy.mil/media/smd.asp

Army

Army has not created restriction beyond the 2007 guidelines. In May, when the Army ordered all U.S. Army bases to provide access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, the reason was “support the intent of senior Army leaders to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story’ and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information [2].”

According to Lindy Kyzer adviser to the Army’s Chief of Public Affairs, in January of 2009, now retired Chief of Public Affairs Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner organized the Online and Social Media Division of Army Public Affairs in an effort to manage the Army’s online image. She says the Online and Social Media Division remains the smallest in the Army Public Affairs department but remains important because Maj. Gen. Bergner continues to instill the importance of online engagement at all levels. “Through Maj. Gen. Bergner’s leadership every pre-command course at Fort Leavenworth and an increasing number of general officers now get a social media 101 briefing. It helps to guide them through the questions they’ll need to ask themselves concerning how they will lead from the front on social media issues.” [31]

While the U.S. Army as a whole has never been restricted from all social media, Kyzer reminds us that even this new policy leaves discretion in the hands of local commanders. With this she also said the new policy opens up access to social networking in several significant ways; all military units will be required to open access to social networking sites at least initially. If commanders do decide to restrict access, she added, those restrictions are supposed to be temporary. Meaning that the Army, which has a list of banned sites, including YouTube, must make those sites available. [32]

The Army premier Twitter ID, @USarmy, provides a wide array of news and information about the Army. Many of the links go to the Army news site for live blog; twitpic is also used occasionally. USarmy currently has an average of 5.5 tweets per day that are predominantly tweeted live from the web. One problem I noticed is that in their bio they state that they as provide “a place to connect with your Army”. Unfortunately only 5% of their tweets are mentions and only 1% are RTs meaning that on average they reply to one person every four days and retweet once every eighteen days.

Marines

Of all the military branches, the Marines has undoubtedly gotten the most media coverage for its ban of social networking sites including Twitter. While the recent policy changes will bring access to some Marines, we’ve not seen yet how wide spread it will be. We should also keep in mind that because of the previous ban, it will take some time for internal training to be developed and habits to form.

As a critic of the former ban on social media by the Marines, Andy Sernovitz, lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism said “The ban is going to hurt morale,” Sernovitz asserted in the Huffington Post [33].

On top of this, it’s not going to work. Everyone has access to a $99 iPhone, texting, and the Web. The Iranian government couldn’t stop Twitter. We’ll look like idiots for trying …If the [Department of Defense] wants to avoid security risks from social media, they need to increase its use. Get everyone familiar with it and train them on proper procedures. Move it underground and you guarantee leaks.

Social media is not a new security risk. This ban does not affect Marines using their own computers. Anyone thoughtless enough to reveal sensitive data on Facebook or Twitter can do so on the phone (landline, cellphone or Skype) or through email or even by old-fashioned postal mail.

Like almost all military public affairs offices, prior to the ban, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort’s Public Affairs Office was able to access the sites through a contract with Morris Communications. According to the air station spokesman, Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, they began their own Facebook and Twitter accounts in November and use them to promote articles in their base newspaper, The Jet Stream. [29d] Unfortunately they’ve only posted fours tweets to date; so while nearby residents may be warned of increased jet noise caused by late-night training flights on Facebook, they are not yet able to find this useful info on Twitter.

McMeen did say that “Sites such as our (air station) Facebook page allow two-way communication between the air station public affairs office and our audience,” and that “Taxpayers pay our salaries and we feel it’s important to have them as a part of this interactive process of sharing information,”

Many military installations, such as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island are still awaiting clarification before launching social media IDs. [34] Fortunately the Marines Corps do have several high-profile Twitter IDs such as @USMC, @USMarineCorps & @ MarineCorpsNews.

The U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters Twitter ID (@USMC) surprisingly was created in 2007 and has just reached 8k followers. This ID is updated approx three times a day primarily with Cotweet. In terms of conversation, USMC is lacking human interaction with only 2% of tweets being @ replies. When we look at retweets we find that 22% of tweets pass on information from sources such as @MarineCorpsNews & @nprnews. As far as background and aesthetics go, USMC is optimized for screens at least 1366 pixels wide; users on smaller screens will not see the full names of the Marine Corps Commandant and 16th Sergeant Major show up on the right side of the main Twitter interface. USMC’s bio link connects to their “On the Record” page providing an “official outlet to provide information and clarifying details to the media in a public forum.”

Through my research I’ve found that Twitter has in fact become a recognized medium for communicating publicly. As we’ve seen in these branch reviews, all of the U.S. military branches lack an official playbook that could bring uniformity- something that has in the past been very important to the military. When asked about the Department of Defense’s new social media policy David Wennergren, deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management said “(The policy) says you got to give people access to the tools that are going to unleash their creativity and innovation and let them get their jobs done better and faster,” This new transformation from the old “social media is security risk” standpoint is obviously a gigantic step in the right direction but must not be seen as the final step in optimizing the way our military communicates.

Links to more info on the Marines:

http://www.marines.mil/usmc/Pages/socialmedia.aspx

Case Studies: AFPAA and USPACOM

My research into finding useful, military-related Twitter IDs began with a simple search on Google for ‘military twitter’. This search led to milblogging.com, a site dedicated to military blogs and micro-blogs like Twitter; milblogging.com is the largest directory of military-related blogs on the Internet. It also led to Govtwit.com, the largest directory of government-related Twitter accounts.

Having colleagues, friends or family in the military can be quite helpful when trying to establish a connection on Twitter. An enthusiastic member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary provided several leads. The hashtags “#MilitaryMon” and “#followfriday” were also helpful in finding members of every branch of the military; however very few official agencies use these hashtags.

Tweet: @coreyac1 7-23-09

Figure 2.1.

Tweet: @veryuseful 7-23-09

Figure 2.2.

I evaluated the military-related Twitter profiles on several points; the background (particularly important for official military), format and content of tweets, transparency, and use of supplemental media. I analyzed a sample of the last 100 tweets, looking not just for number of replies, retweets, hashtags but also for the type of conversation: how committed were they to conversing about military related topics? From the dozens I examined, I chose two for in-depth analysis: the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Agency (@AFPAA) and The Pacific Command Center (@PacificCommand).

The U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Agency

One of the most aesthetically pleasing profiles was created and developed within the Pentagon. This agency began in 1978 as the Air Force Service Information and News Center; it has changed names several times since. The current name, the Air Force Public Affairs Agency (AFPAA), was adopted in October 2008; at the same time, they set up a Twitter profile.

Tweet: @afpaa 10-7-07

Figure 2.3.

The first tweet by @AFPAA establishes a best practice: it describes exactly what should happen for an official military account to be successful. I want to highlight that the public affairs department worked directly with the IT department as it moved into the social media realm.

The Twitter profile has several components: name, location, Web link, bio, avatar and background image. Let’s see how well @AFPAA does in each category.

Name: US Air Force (USAF)
Twitter restricts the number of characters that can be used in the name. With the choice of name, the public affairs office has made it clear that this is the primary Twitter account for the U.S. Air Force. They are not in the Twitter beta project for “verified accounts.”

Location: ÜT: 39.777013,-84.095229
The Pentagon is located in Arlington, Virginia (metropolitan Washington, D.C.); the GPS coordinates (latitude, longitude) may be a puzzle for the non-military minded. However, the background image states that the “hometown” is the Pentagon.
Web Link: http://airforcelive.dodlive.mil/
The Twitter profile links directly to U.S. Air Force Live, the official blog. By visiting the “about” page, you can learn the names of three members of the social media team. However, the blog does not link to the main U.S. Air Force web site or home page.

Bio: Official U.S. Air Force Twitter: news, images, video from www.af.mil about our Airmen around the world. (Following does not=endorsement.)

AFPAA underutilizes its bio. There is no reason to include a URL here — it is not clickable. Because this is a searchable field, it should include more keywords such as social media, military, global, public affairs, PA and blog. There should also be a hint as to who is tweeting for the account.

Avatar: Official seal
The blue Air Force wings would be more recognizable as an avatar.

Background Image:
The AFPAA background is aesthetically pleasing (it must have been designed specifically for my resolution) and official-looking. It includes additional biographical information, information that is not scannable because it is text-on-an-image; some of that information would be put to better use in the searchable text bio. The AFPAA has integrated several social media sites into its communication strategy and identifies all of them here.

Discussion:

Although the AFPAA doesn’t follow many people, the account is engaged with an admirable percentage of @reply conversations. In an analysis of 100 tweets, one-third were @replies. I was surprised that only eight were retweets (two used “via” to share credit). There was a trifling use of hashtags (15 tweets). Unlike many organizational Twitter accounts, @AFPAA is involved in the most important aspect of Twitter, conversations!

Pacific Command Center

The Pacific Command Center is the Unified Combatant Command Center of the Armed Forces of the United States, located at Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii. Along with having an area of responsibility that spans half the globe, USPACOM commands approximately 250,000 military personnel. I selected USPACOM to provide an example of how Twitter might be used to share information that is pertinent to all branches of the military. USPACOM integrates multiple forms of social media into its communication strategy.

Name: Pacific Command
Although Twitter restricts the number of characters that can be used in the name, this choice would be more meaningful if it included something related to the Armed Forces.

Location: Camp Smith, Hawaii
No questions here.

Web Link: http://www.USPACOM .mil/
The Twitter profile links directly to the U.S. Pacific Command home page. A best practices recommendation is to link to social media content or a special landing page; specific content not only facilitates measurement (a URL-shortener can also provide metrics) but it also takes the Twitter visitor to the type of content most likely to be of interest.

Bio: U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM ) is a Unified Combatant Command of the Armed Forces of the United States.

This is the same text used in background image. It is missing keywords like media, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force. There is no information about who is tweeting.

Avatar: Logo for Pacific Command
The use of a logo makes it clear that this is an organizational account.

Background Image:
The USPACOM background is basic , a soothing light blue. However, the image text is also blue (poor contrast) and in all capitals, which makes it hard to read. Like @AFPAA, there is no information about who is tweeting. USPACOM has integrated several social media sites into its communication strategy and identifies them here.

Discussion:

This handle is predominantly a news feed but does offer some conversational elements. In an analysis of 100 tweets, only one was an @reply; @PacificCommand falls into the stereotypical organizational use of Twitter: one-way broadcast. However, 9 of the 100 tweets were retweets, signaling that there is actually someone behind the curtain. Like shy people who sit in the corner by themselves at parties, Twitter users like USPACOM are only one step away from starting up conversations. All they need is the human resources and some good pick-up lines.

Where to go from here

One of the worst things you can do is give up on Twitter simply because you cannot access it. If you’re adamant about using Twitter and you’re currently being blocked, the best place to start is with your commanding officer, who in many cases has the ability to address the issue with IT. Becoming active in the discussion using the blogs that have been set up on military servers is currently the most effective way to begin to engage in an internal conversation.

Using the abundance of resources that are available via the Internet, I’ve summarized the key reasons the military should promote Twitter and some solutions to the problems that all military personnel face when attempting to use social media. The profiles and other references show that the military as a whole is not yet ready to communicate socially but within the military there are many proponents for this change.

In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate something that the Linda Thomas (@thenewschick) said when asked the best way to convince people to use Twitter: “Stop wasting your time!” She explained that it is more important to find people who are already on-board or can be convinced easily to give it a try. It is much easier to target these people and then convince the others through shear numbers.

Tweet: @AfpaDude 8-25-09

Figure 4.1.

Footnotes:

[1] http://www.defense.gov/NEWS/DTM%2009-026.pdf

[2] See Appendix X for the screen capture, http://www.trooptube.tv/videos/top_favorited?page=1

[3] Fiterman is the founder of Methodvue, a cybersecurity and computer forensics consultancy, http://methodvue.com/

[4] http://www.defense.gov/home/Specials/

[5] http://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/MILITARY/history/hst0909.pdf and http://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/CIVILIAN/fy2009/september2009/september2009.pdf

[6] http://www.uscg.mil/comdt/blog/

[7] http://www.uscg.mil/comdt/blog/2009/07/twitter-updates.asp?

[8] As of September, 2009

[9] http://uscgd13.blogspot.com/ and http://www.youtube.com/user/USCGD13

[9] http://af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-090406-036.pdf

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