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Media and the Military – I Told You So

August 16, 2013

While I’m removed from the world of military public affairs for now I’m fortunate to have a job that keeps me connected to defense industry news. I’ve watched with little surprise as former ‘bloggers’ have advanced to positions of prominence with major news outlets. The latest announcement, Noah Shachtman as executive editor for news at Foreign Policy. This one hits close to home for two reasons – I love and respect Foreign Policy. It’s a meaty publication with a rich history. I also worked with Noah in my position as ‘blog wrangler‘ for the U.S. Army.

When I worked with Noah he was the editor of Wired’com’s ‘Danger Room’ a very well-respected military blog with very legitimate ‘hard news’ ties of its own. But because it was an ‘online publication,’ many in the public affairs community were unaware of what to do with it (the Department of Defense public affairs shop was not among the confused – they were reaching out to online media before I ever stepped foot in the Pentagon).

My relationship with Noah was similar to what it was with every other online blogger – I tried to reach out with useful information, poorly proofread press releases and media ops with high-ranking military brass and obscure Army scientists. The key was that I invested a lot of time reading, researching, and to the best of my ability building relationships. (In those relationships, I was like the geeky band student reaching out desperately to the cool kids – if you’re a government PR maven who has never felt this way, please call me with your strategy).

Back then, online publications (blogs) were considered a separate entity than the ‘traditional’ media. They may get access, they may not. But either way it took a heck of a lot more work on their part. That was then. Today, they’re taking over ‘traditional’ publications who are more digital, dynamic and online than ever.

I told you so.

I’ve gotten a lot more credit than I deserve for getting the Army to ‘embrace’ social media. When I started in military public affairs I was a Department of Army intern. But fortunately the current Secretary of the Army was highly interested in telling the U.S. Army story online, and the current Chief of Army Public Affairs was also very engaged. I also benefited from good timing. I pitched an opportunity for the newly incoming Chief to speak to a conference of milbloggers, and it turned out to be his first ‘official’ appearance. It set the tone for several years of very proactive engagement and outreach, much of it directed at educating military leadership at the brigade, battalion, and general officer level. Again, none of this was my initiative, but I was fortunate to be the the bullhorn that shouted the reality that online publications would be the publications we will be pitching in the years to come. Make nice with bloggers now – they’re the editors of the future.

The problem with most government PR jobs is a lack of continuity. I miss working in the tight-knit world of Army Public Affairs. The problem with government today is that it struggles to retain young  talent – many of those I knew from the Department of Army intern program have moved on (others have stayed – kudos to them). But it would be fun to be operating in media relations today, seeing the shift in media outreach, as the line between online and offline has merged. My guess is there are quite a few ‘bloggers’ who have no trouble getting public affairs officers to take their calls.

Social Media Mavens Invade the C Suite

May 14, 2012

I’ve been a bit at odds with so-called social media expertise of late (which doesn’t bode well as I’m slated to speak at a social media conference next week). As I’ve mentioned in the past I think it’s easy for organizations who are looking to build a social media presence to either get shiny object syndrome or go through an identity crisis. And now, as more organizations are moving social capability into the “C Suite” it’s going to be increasingly easy for them to put social media on a platform where it shouldn’t be.

It’s easy (and more fun) to be the snarky critic of an organization’s inefficiencies. No one is better at this than contractors and consultants (before you get offended I’ve worked as both, and I haven’t held my punches against federal workers in the past). When you’re on the outside looking in, it is incredibly easy to judge, criticize and condemn the activities within an organization. It’s even easier if you’re separated from it all by a C suite office. As someone who’s spent a career as a field officer versus a general, I’m going to have a natural bias toward respecting the perspective of the infantryman.

Social media culture change has to start at the top. But its implementation should be done across the organization. If organizations continue to implement C suite social media positions, they shouldn’t position them as consultants to the brand, but put them in the field along with the marketers, IT pros and others responsible for the nuts and bolts of social media implementation.

There are great times to hire consultants and contractors. But if those consultants and contractors only have an advisory role, you’re probably wasting your money. Long-term, significant social media change must happen internally. If you bring in a consultant to train your staff, educate your leadership, implement a program or manage a campaign, great. But expect the effort to burn out quickly after they depart, unless they’ve left a road map and equally competent full-time staff in their wake.

All too many social media efforts burst open like a firecracker and then fizzle like a dud. Those with staying power may not have as dramatic an entrance, but they’ll have built a program based on long-term organization goals, brand objectives, and a solid and feasible content creation strategy.

Long live social media, but beware its experts.

What Happens in Afghanistan Stays in Afghanistan

January 13, 2012

By now the frenzy over a video of a group of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of several Talaban insurgents has reached fever pitch. News anchors and pundits are harshly criticizing the actions; watching the international press is even worse. Even Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has spoken out, calling the actions “utterly deplorable.”

The fact of the matter is, it was a dumb thing to do. It was a dumber thing to do because in today’s internet age you can’t guarantee that some idiot isn’t going to post what you just did on You Tube for all the world to see. I’m under the absolute belief that sometimes, what happens in combat stays in combat.

The thing that I can’t get over is how every time our service members make one tiny mistake (which is how I’d categorize this – in the scheme of war, a minor, small, should-be insignificant mistake), a bunch of pansy-faced, pastel shirt wearing academics and journalists are the first ones on the offensive, denouncing the action. The kind of folks who have absolutely no clue what it’s like to serve overseas, the pressure of combat or what it takes to be a Marine. You want to criticize the actions of our troops so bad? Pick up an M16 and join them on the Pakistan border for few months. I’m sure you’ll deal with the pressures splendidly.

It’s almost laughable to hear folks talking about the “horrific” “dishonorable” conduct our service members displayed. Clearly the people making those statements never went to a state college where nearly every fraternity party ends with someone getting peed on (give those You Tube videos a try if you want to lament the state of America today). I don’t think those Marines were making a political statement in what they did (if they were, I couldn’t read what they were trying to spell). They were Marines, at the end of what had likely been a tense few hours or days, letting off steam.

When I used to give training at the Army’s Pre Command Course for incoming battalion commanders, there was always at least one guy in the room who would talk about how he didn’t like it, didn’t want it, didn’t see the use of any of it in the field. I never discredited that opinion but the fact always was the forces of social media were in rapid dissemination for troops at every level. You couldn’t just put it back in the box.

Seeing things like this event, how like so many military “scandals” these days the information was first released via social media, I can more easily relate to where he’s coming from. It still doesn’t mean you can put the social media Pandora back in her box, but it sure would make it easier for some commanders if you could.

I want our troops to be warriors. I want them to be willing to do the things I know I’m incapable of to protect America’s freedom and way of life.  Deebow over at Blackfive summed it up well:

The nature of warriors is something that only warriors will ever know.  Those that have never experienced this will never know why these men felt the need to do what they did.  But if our military is going to be effective in the long run, our enemies must fear us.  They must believe that we are capable of unspeakable evil and every now and then, we have to pull back the curtain a little and let them see a smidgen of what we are holding the lid on while we bomb them further into the stone age.  That fear of what those warriors are capable of will save lives.

It was a dumb thing, not a deplorable thing, not a despicable thing, not a thing of lasting consequence outside our new political correct military which will use it for every ounce it’s worth. Our relationship with Afghanistan and Karzai has been poor and getting worse for a long time. Folks who want to use this as an excuse for strained relationships and backlash need to look elsewhere in our foreign policy decisions.

Things I Learned in 2011

January 6, 2012

Blogs come in every size, shape and political persuasion but regardless of the differences there’s almost an obligation to write some form of top 10 or “year in review” each year. Even for schmucks like myself, who get so drowned in life that regular posting trickles to a rarity, there’s something about annual reflection that comes second to nature. I think it has something to do with the origin of blogs as basic web logs or journals. As we contemplate resolutions and fitness, even blogs get a little introspective.

For myself, this has certainly been a year of change and learning, in both my personal life and professional life. So here is my list of lessons learned – I’d love to hear yours, too!

1. Time truly is finite. The fact of the matter is unless you’re under 18 or a college student who isn’t applying yourself, your days are likely pretty full. I can’t even really remember the times when an evening ebbed by slowly, when the hours between morning and sleeping were lazy and dull. I imagine I had those times; I mean, I had to have, at some point. Even now when I compare life with a baby to life as a working professional I’m shocked at how I frittered away precious minutes. Working late, going shoe shopping, sitting on a park bench reading a book – how ridiculous! I used to have time for these sorts of things!

Now, literally every moment in my day is full. From waking to sleeping I’m either working, chasing around a 1-year old, making dinner, preparing for some event. And while my husband would like to think my days would open up if I quit my job and I would somehow have hours of leisure to eat chocolates and flip through magazines, I don’t think that would be the case. Life is like air – it will fill any size container it’s put in. I know stay-at-home moms and wives who seem to live equally hectic days as myself.

If every moment is finite it’s that much more important to make the right choices with my time. Right now, I’m spending most of my spare minutes playing with a toddler and daydreaming about those days when I could try on shoes at the shopping mall…

2. For goodness sakes, enjoy your work. I have two full-time jobs that I love equally – being a mom and working in public relations. One is, admittedly, easier to quit than the other but I’m beyond lucky that I really enjoy what I do. Not everyone gets to work with a great company like I do. Some bosses really suck and sometimes work can really be work. Unfortunately, having a bad attitude doesn’t make it better. We spend way too much of our waking (and note point one, above, finite) hours working to despise it. If you can find something you love to do go after it, no matter who doubts you. But at the end of the day you’re bigger than a job – make your focus on life outside of your 9-5, and don’t spend your life outside of a terrible job talking about how awful it is.

3. Social media needs a shot of insulin to help it recover from the sugar rush. When it first arrived on the scene (in the world at large, a decade ago; in the government, several years ago), social media was like a toy everyone wanted to try – pretty soon it was everywhere. I’ve always strongly argued that social media needs to be integrated into overall communications efforts and strategic planning. In the past several years social media has come into its own and garnered a seat at the big-kids’ table, so to speak. Unfortunately, as social media has gained prominence in far too many communications shops it’s now trumping other efforts. Executive leadership looks to social media as a one-stop-shop for solutions rather than exploring other communications mechanisms. Don’t get me wrong, I think almost every brand or company needs a well-developed social media presence to succeed. What you don’t need is a loud-mouthed social media evangelist claiming Twitter is the answer to all of your problems.

What most communications strategies need today is content. The right media maven will help an organization solve problems and engage stakeholders, not just offer up apps and jazzy campaigns.

4. Most people don’t care what you say. The exceptions are people who work for you or who are married to you. But the actual reason they care about what you say is because they have a vested reason for doing so. This is harsh (please keep in mind my love of sarcasm), but also true. If we spent half as much time thinking about what other people think – of how we’re doing our jobs, how we’re raising our kids, of how we look at the grocery store – and spent that same amount of time on introspection, prayer and a little time in the Bible we’d be much better off. This is why listeners are generally more liked than big talkers.

If you find someone who you’re not paying or married to who actually listens to what you have to say and seems to appreciate it, that person is a true friend. Keep him or her around and bribe them with baked goods, good movies some reciprocated listening.

5. Life isn’t meant to be easy. (I know, I know – I’m pulling out the really ah-ha statements for the end). I think reality television and a fast-food lifestyle have convinced some people that life is supposed to be one fun-fest after another and come out made to order. Life is messy. Work is messy. Marriage is messy. God doesn’t promise us an easy life, he promises us heaven to those who confess their sins, trust and believe in him (and I hear heaven is pretty sweet, so that’s something). I think our tragic, pre-teen emo culture fest is churning out some young people who don’t quite understand the road ahead of them. Top that off with a group of baby-boomer apologists who are justifying any manner of immoral behavior because of a touchy-feely desire to just “let go and let God,” whatever what means.

There’s nothing like raising a kid (which is something I did in the last year) that convinces you that life isn’t made to order. You can think and plan and envision all you want and sometimes that all comes crashing down before breakfast. But really, that’s okay. Personally, professionally, the days where we create something exciting out of the unexpected are the days we’ll remember.

Do You Need a Social Media Policy?

September 22, 2011

Yes. Will your organizational structure allow you to create one that will be effective and useful? That’s more difficult to say, especially if you work in government. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an advocate for policy, especially when it comes to emerging technologies. It has nothing to do with being adverse to policy, but has everything to do with the bureaucratic procedures and staffing that make many policies – both in corporate America and in our government – ineffective.

When it comes to social media policy, often the best bet for many organizations is just to adapt existing policy to the social media realm. Within the military there are specific regulations addressing operations security and service-member behavior – both of these arenas have implications in social media, and either can be used to address social media issues. For a time, we can operate in a policy umbrella where we’re interpreting policy to address technologies that are on the horizon. But at some point things need to get a bit more explicit. I think that time has likely come for many government agencies.

A recent Government Accountability Office report chastised offices for a lack of defined policies and procedures to address social media. Even the Department of Defense, which has come out in front of many other agencies when it comes to social media, isn’t above criticism. Social media policy, like any emerging area, doesn’t happen overnight. If it does, it’s probably not going to be well formulated and effective. But it should emerge and evolve over time, in a series of stages and by asking a few questions:

1. What policies already cover this arena? When it comes to social media, a variety of policies often converge – you have IT, communications, legal, and a cross-section of offices and arenas involved. All too often each of these departments or directorates wants to craft their own, new policy. The best thing is to sit at the table together and look at how existing policies already address the issue. Social media is communication – actions taken using social media are punishable under UCMJ, for the military, and risks taken on networks are punishable within existing G-6 (military IT) policies.

2. What best practices should we institute in the interim? I’ve always been a much bigger proponent of social media goals and best practices over policy. Best practices don’t carry the weight of policy but they offer very real, actionable steps that can be taken within your organization. In many ways they’re also taken more seriously than policy, because they can (and should) be written in laymen’s language and with a timeliness and immediacy you’ll never see in government issued policy.

3. Where do we need to change our current policies? Chances are you don’t really need a new policy for social media – but you will need to make some changes to existing policies to address the changing frameworks of social media, including what constitutes proper records keeping and what is acceptable employee behavior.

The real first step when it comes to social media policy is educating your stakeholders and getting your leadership on board – which is why I’m such a huge proponent of instituting social media education programs that get at the highest levels of leadership and bring them on board with social media. Then, when and if the day comes that you need to generate an entirely new policy framework to address social media or emerging technologies, you’ll have the support you need to push it forward and get it implemented.

Can America Be Great Again?

September 12, 2011

Like many people I spent a part of my Sunday, September 11, 2011, watching the hours of media coverage, tributes and specials commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Unfortunately, as someone who communicates and “messages” for a living I can’t help but watch many interviews and see the strategic message. When any public figure communicates – whether they’re the President, a member of congress or a member of their local school board, they generally have some strategic message they’re looking to get across when speaking with the media (if they don’t they need to hire a public affairs officer or join the Toastmasters).

When it comes to my formal “military” public affairs training, there was one thing us Defense Information School students learned from the gate – if tragedy happens, it’s best not to equate a loss of life with anything else. You’re never better off for someone’s death, even if that death happened for a worthy cause. It’s insensitive to the families of the fallen and it will almost always come across worse than you intended it. There’s no “but” attached at the end of a tragedy. It’s a tragedy.

But just as you can never replace a lost life or fill the void that’s left, you also can’t forget what happened. Magnified on a national scale, it’s ridiculous to think that we could just forget the events of 9/11 (anyone who remembered what air travel, or Washington, D.C. itself, was like before September 11, 2001 can tell you that). Our nation was forever changed. An entire generation of Americans was called to service in a way we haven’t seen since America’s Greatest Generation. (And no, they’re not participating in mentorship programs or planting trees right now, they’re serving in the U.S. military).

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Mejia, with the 460th Security Forces Squadron, stands in front of a tractor-trailer holding remnants of the World Trade Center, Aug. 7, 2011. The 230,000 pounds of rusted steel stopped at Buckley Air Force Base overnight on its way to its final destination in downtown Denver. Mejia was assigned to watch over the shipment until dawn. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Kathrine McDowell, U.S. Air Force/Released)

So I’m going to go ahead and admit that much of the “messaging” I saw from folks across Washington, D.C. yesterday got to me. Talking about America’s “continuity” and the strength of its “diversity” is not what I wanted to hear. Diversity has always been a strength of our nation, but when it comes to times of national tragedy I’ll argue it isn’t our diversity that gets us through, it’s our unity. In times of crisis at home or in war it’s unity of effort, unity of purpose and the strength of our conviction that propels us forward. There is a time and a place to talk about the strength of America’s diversity. 9/11 isn’t that time. I also believe there is a time and a place to talk about America’s committment to service and community works. 9/11 isn’t that time. It’s a time to remember, a time to honor patriots and think of those who’s lives were lost.

There are daily threats to our country; there is an entire movement committed to seeing an end to our American way of life. I put my faith first and foremost in God, but I also believe in this country – in the strength of democracy and the importance of free people. I believe America can be great again. I think we owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 to make America great again, and I pray that in my lifetime I’ll see leadership in Washington, D.C. and a committment from the American people to make it happen.

Not All Men are Created Equal – Some are Greater

August 9, 2011

What a tragic loss of life this weekend. As so many have said, we didn’t just lose 30 lives this weekend in the Taliban attack that took down a Chinook helicopter, we lost some of the greatest men this country has. A select, fine group of men who do jobs we don’t know about, whose families sacrifice each day, so we can go about our weekends, spending time with our family.

These men can’t be replaced because today, there are so few like them. So few who see the vision of selfless service in our military, so few who have the values and the sense of patriotism to serve in this way.

I’m rare to recommend anything on the Today Show but I came across this interview with the family of Navy Seal Aaron Vaughn. Don’t just read the story - watch the interview. It’s worth every second of your time in watching it, and is a perfect reminder of the importance of our mission in the Middle East, and the great courage of character and conviction shown by our men and women in uniform. These quotes from Vaughn’s mother and wife drive home the legacy we all could wish to have. I’m continually amazed by the strength of our military families, and especially this one.

“We’re a very patriotic family,’’ Karen Vaughn said. “We believe that America will be on its feet again and a country that the rest of the world looks to as a leader. We’re just really sad about this huge loss. We’re really sad that our son is gone, but we know that he would have done it all again.’’

As for Kimberly, she is left with two children too young to fully understand the profound loss, but she will tell them the story of their heroic father.

“They will take away his love for Christ,’’ Kimberly said tearfully about her children. “They will take away his strength and his love for this country. And they will know what an amazing man he [was].’’

My thoughts and prayers to them and profound thanks to all of those who have lost a loved one. There are no words.

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