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Making a military-grade case for social media

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Staff Sgt. Joshua Salmons is the Emerging Media Coordinator at the Defense Information School. He works to determine curriculum standards for social media instruction for  public affairs officers and enlisted personnel and develops training modules and seminars for DINFOS staff. He works with emerging media outlets from across the military to make sure their social training needs are being met and serves on several steering committees and policy discussion panels regarding DOD social media policy.

Why does the military need to embrace social media?

It’s not a social media problem, per se. The military needs to embrace social media because it represents a remarkable change in communication.

Clay Shirky calls it the “mass amateurization” of journalism — the fact that barriers of entry to mass communication are now so low that everyone has the potential to speak to the world for little more than the cost of an Internet connection.

Research from the Pew groups shows a large and accelerating shift in how people get their news. The legacy news industry is dying quickly, for a number of reasons, one being a stubbornness to adapt to audience needs. I heard a reporter from CNN speaking on a panel at the 2009 Army Worldwide Public Affairs Symposium say that we, as PA personnel, will miss reporters when they are gone. She realized that, while her industry was dying, they still served a vital pure storytelling function. And I believe she is right — journalists will always be needed to put words to experiences. The problem with the legacy news industry was the resistance to change.

The military faces the same dilemma. We are just lagging behind the immediate effects of the communication paradigm shift that is social media. Former Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said, “If you dislike change, you’ll like irrelevance even less,” and I agree. Sometimes we have to change, otherwise our audience will change and leave us.

I like to think of it in terms of history. If we look back at the early 20th century, America was faced with a shift in transportation paradigm. Automobiles had been in existence since the 1700s. Then, they were steam powered. They often broke, blew up and killed people — wonderful devices. But in the early 1900s, cars became more practical. They became commercially viable. People started buying them in greater numbers. Companies, and then the government, had to make a choice: either they could continue creating products and infrastructure to cater to horses, or they could adopt new products and laws to handle the influx of these new machines. The transportation idea was the same — moving a person from point A to point B faster than walking. It’s just that cars brought along a whole new set of circumstances that had to be adapted to.

Similarly, we face such a shift with communication. Companies (those who produce products, in our case, stories, photos and broadcasts) have to make a choice. We can keep making saddles for horses — because we make great saddles, right? We’ve never made better saddles. That’s not the issue. The issue is, will we be able to keep selling thousands or millions of saddles as cars take over horses as the preferred method of transportation? Nope. We can keep making saddles — great and awesome saddles —  but our influence will shrink to a niche market. Our other choice is to take our existing skills and adapt them to the new paradigm. In the transportation example, that would be like a saddle company taking its expertise in leatherworking to make seats for cars. In the communications example, it’s news organizations taking their storytelling experience to produce blogs and quality social media content to engage others.

All that to say, social media isn’t the issue, per se. If the military does not break out of its mold and learn to adapt, the world will move on. We will be ignored.

When you first began to propose using social tools, what kinds of objections were you hearing from your commanders?

There are a lot of objections. In 2005, when I was blogging in Iraq, the objections were a lot more paranoid. Commanders and OPSEC officers saw social media as a security risk. I even was told in a briefing that if I blogged, I would be killing soldiers. That sort of prejudice can’t be countered. Military bloggers kept operating in quasi-secret. Later, the culture began to shift. In 2007 I started meeting others who were pushing for the same things with social media in the military — that it was an extension and amplification of public affairs goals, not a counter to military storytelling. Last year saw a lot of DOD high-level leaders embracing social media. They were sold on the idea of it. And strategic leaders are pretty easy to convince. So long as I do my homework and research relevant statistics, any good leader will see the cost- and time-saving benefits of social media tools as good for the organization. The junior levels usually already use social media because of generational preferences. It’s the large middle chunk that is the problem. Usually those leaders have the most to lose — either they are bucking for promotion, or they know if things go south, CEOs are rarely relieved. It’s far easier to can a few middle managers.

So, in regards to more “normal” objections, now that we’re largely past the “social media will lead to the zombie apocalypse” phase, many commanders still see the security vulnerabilities as a show stopper. Some cite bandwidth concerns. Some are unsure where to start and draw attention to staff shortages. I also hear that social media is nothing but a productivity waster.

How did you answer those objections?

Each case is different. I take a look at the organization, how they work, what their communication goals are (surprisingly, many organizations can’t articulate them), and how they might benefit from new tools in their workflow. If I can get some managers to buy off on social media, implement small changes and begin to shift workplace culture, advocating more sweeping mindset changes become easier. Internal communicators become external communicators as discussions migrate from internal wikis and blogs to Facebook and external communities. It’s like proselytizing.

But, more specifically, to the charge of security vulnerabilities, I try to work through what specific vulnerabilities they are referring to. Internal hosting of tools mitigates a lot of them. Training mitigates the rest. E-mail is still the No. 1 source of viruses and worms, but we don’t throw out e-mail. It’s too crucial to our workflow. Social media has some of the same vulnerabilities, sure, but there are tools to mitigate risk just like with e-mail, computer use or the chance that a spouse will give away information on the phone. Short of locking up all employees in the basement, there will always be security risks. Social media does have its own set of vulnerabilities, but to write it off as a lost cause because of the risk is overreacting, in my opinion.

When commanders cite productivity concerns, I try to point out that lazy people are lazy people, be it around a water cooler or on Facebook. It’s a management issue, not a social media issue. If someone takes a four-hour lunch, a manager reprimands the employee and takes actions to alter behavior. The manager doesn’t ban lunch.

To the charge of staff shortages and not knowing where to put already stretched resources in the social media world, I try to be as encouraging as possible. I understand where they are coming from. We are all told to do more with less. I keep trying to advocate an examination of current practices, though. If 70% of a shop’s time is devoted to publishing a physical newsletter that only gets to 12% or 14% of its audience, I would ask the organization to rethink how it interfaces with its public. It’s not just a matter of doing more with the same docket of activities. Sometimes it involves rescinding old practices to better interface with the public.

Do you need to separate your enthusiasm for a given technology from your pitch? How do you do that?

Communication planning. As much as I might love cloud computing, the development of strong AI, augmented reality, etc; if an avenue of emerging media doesn’t meet the communication goals of the organization I’m speaking to, then it’s a time-waster. Luckily, it’s easy for me to do this as a government employee. I’m not peddling any particular product. I’m not racking up billable hours. I’m busy like everyone else. I don’t have time to go on and on. I want goals so we can develop a plan. Then we implement. Then we measure. Bam! Done. My enthusiasm for emerging technologies might increase the number of potential tools I can bring to bear on any given project, but at my current level, I’m free to explore or ignore certain sectors of emerging media without profitability standing in the way.

Is it more important to have the leadership mandate it or to have the rank-and-file clamoring for access? Whose support do you need most to get an organization to adopt a new technology?

Both, if possible. I use a lot of tongue-in-cheek revolutionary rhetoric, but there are a lot of parallels between the political revolutionary process and the “revolution” of workplace culture. Both deal with the disenfranchised, both desire real and sweeping changes. If the top-level leadership comes on board, then there is a bloodless coup and the new regime moves forward together. If the top-level leadership stands against it, then the rank-and-file need to clamor away until the ruckus can’t be ignored.

Luckily, there aren’t too many showdowns. When dealing with overall organizational health and profitability, top-level leadership usually is open for new ideas. If, instead, they see the organization as their personal plaything and are unwilling to discuss innovation, then I put forward they are a terrible leader. In those cases, social media is probably only one of many, many problems with retention, profitability and command climate.

The key element to a successful social media revolution is the middle. It’s the middle management. It’s the experienced and influential co-workers. I, as some social media champion, can rattle my saber and make fantastic briefings all I want, but if I can’t secure the hearts of the middle, any change will eventually stall and die. I see it at DINFOS. My attempts at change have been somewhat successful, but so much will fade when I leave. The school doesn’t even have any plans to replace me. We will see if any of the progress we’ve made will persist. I was unable to get enough face time and convince enough of the middle — the long-staying employees, to go along with things. I can give a briefing and get any one group of people fired up, but without the middle, it is ephemeral.

I would say junior and top levels are easy. Convincing the middle is the challenge.