Army sees benefits in social-media presence

Online social-networking tools play role in Army's communications strategy

Social-networking tools are playing an increasingly important part of the U.S. Army’s strategy for communicating with the public, despite the inherent security risks, according to Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, director of the U.S. Army’s Online and Social Media Division.

Those security risks continue to be the subject of considerable debate within the Defense Department, but the U.S. Army nevertheless is seeing important benefits in using social-media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Arata said.

Chief among them, Arata said, is the ability to project a presence on social-networking sites and “provide the official Army voice,” he said.

Arata, who spoke about the use of Web 2.0 tools in government at the 2009 American Council of Technology and Industry Advisory Council’s Executive Leadership Conference Monday, said as many as 500 people were speaking on behalf of the Army on various social-networking sites.

“We need to be out there,” he said.

However, he cautioned, it’s important for agencies to have a clear social-media strategy.

For the Army, that means ensuring the interactions with social-networking site audiences are relevant; that the Army’s information is accessible to as many people as possible; and that it is establishing a dialogue with audiences, rather than simply delivering information.

Arata said more than 66,000 people had signed up as fans on the Army’s Facebook site and nearly 15,000 were receiving messages on the Army’s Twitter site. The Army also actively uses YouTube.

The social-networking tools also play a role in supporting communications within the Army, Arata said, with more than 250 official social-media sites across the Army.

Among the lessons Arata said he and the Army have learned in working with social-media sites:

  • Think strategically, but don’t wait for the perfect plan.
  • Emphasize education, not regulation, for Army users.
  • Mix your messages with traditional media and bloggers.
  • Concentrate on tactics, techniques and procedures. Teach what can be done, and how to do it.
  • Brand your organization across all sites.
  • Check out organizations similar to yours who are successfully using social media.
  • Find at least one person who works above you who is — or can be made into — a social-media “believer.”
  • With Facebook, remember, dialogue is audience-to-audience, as well as Army-to-audience.
  • Be willing to assume risk.

Arata also outlined some of the challenges the Army still faces with using social media. Among them:

  • The importance of explaining what you are doing and why. Your information technology, legal and public affairs professionals may not understand, he said.
  • The need to get skeptics to sign up for social-media accounts to help build experience.
  • Promoting operations security and common-sense use. Ask users if they would post the information they’re thinking about in their own front yard?
  • Resource management — and the need to match resources to engagements.
  • Relevancy — everyone wants to play with social media but not everyone needs to engage directly.
  • Measuring and assessing impact and deciding what actions to take.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.


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