Another argument for increased engagement

As the Special Operations Command Europe Public Affairs Officer, I often consider the value of communicating about what we do within the world of special operations. Sure, many of the missions assigned to SOF are secret. In fact, even the mention of specific personnel or units assigned within the community can be considered sensitive. Still, I believe it is important to communicate our value to the public. Doing so informs those who pay our bills (our taxpayers) and those who make key decisions (our government leadership) about where that money goes.

The rationales are generally the same whether we’re talking about SOF or conventional forces. Beyond the U.S borders, where I currently reside, it’s important to convey how and why we are building international military partnerships and working with our many allies to build and maintain global stability and security. Effective communication also informs our enemies that we are prepared to defeat them in any environment. Within my community, evidence of a lack of communication exists in the form of two recent blogs: Does the United States Still Need USSOCOM?, which appeared in the blogsite Small Wars Journal just this week and another post on a separate site that was influenced by the SWJ post, entitled Abolish SOCOM. Although I don't agree with the authors' assessments, I am confident that some senior decision makers read those two posts…and were influenced by them.

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the benefits of engaging in a still emerging realm: social media. Experts Brian Solis, author of Putting the Public Back in Public Relations and Price Floyd, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, came to Stuttgart to speak about social networking platforms and how they can help us earn relevance to engage the world around us. Key conversations are going on around us every day, and we must determine whether we should be involved in them or not. Just because we choose to ignore does not mean the conversations will stop; it simply means that we will have no input, which may not impact tactical or operational events, but surely has potential to influence the strategic environment.

To many, the social media realm may seem to be nothing more than an arena fraught with unnecessary risk. On Dec. 13, the New York Times highlighted embarrassing viruses that can plague social networking sites. We know that spear phishing, social engineering and unwitting installation of Spyware are real threats that must be considered and addressed. Additionally, many people have posted themselves (or others) doing incredibly stupid things on social media sites. In an effort to remind us what is appropriate (and what is not) for military members who utilize SM sites to post, the Pentagon Channel has developed an interesting (and somewhat entertaining) video of the Top Ten list of stupid things done in social media. It is important to realize that just as with everything we do in life, especially in the military, engaging in social media involves some degree of risk and the requirement to be responsible does not disappear.

The risks, however, do not mean that we should avoid engagement. Just as in combat, where we take actions to protect ourselves, in the social media world, we must also take protective actions. We can familiarize ourselves with phishing techniques, learn about social media security settings and install anti-spyware software to our computers. We must also be responsible and have a strategy.

Within a communication strategy that enables increased public dialogue, we can begin to increase relevance and develop an advocacy forum that can carry our objectives forward. Although all social media outlets are not optimal for every command, there are many to choose from and having a strategy of engagement is important.

So where can we begin? For key leaders, Bloggers Roundtable is a DoD initiative that enables them to address important issues with prominent bloggers who then publish their own blogposts armed with information that mainstream media may not have gathered. These issues can be later re-communicated by mainstream media (most of whom follow prominent blogsites). Guest blogging and commenting on others blogs is another way for the rest of us to interact in a positive manner. It can spur debate and correct misconceptions. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (among many others) are also platforms that can be incorporated into a communication strategy.

Admiral Stavridis has arguably set the foundations for increased engagement within European Command, and other senior leaders are engaging as well. I firmly believe, however, that in today’s information dominated world, if we (including those within special operations) leave communication to only our senior leaders, we will not succeed in the information war that encompasses so much of the conflicts in which we are currently involved.


MAJ Jim Gregory

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Comments: 4

by Theresa on January 10, 2010 :

Thank you so much for this post. There is so much more everyone has to benefit from using this technology to its fullest than simply ignoring it and letting others talk for us. I am glad to read that there are proponents of using social media within the SOF community. I can only hope we will use it more in the future. As a PAO, I still find that many operators are weary of any PA coverage, social media included. But, our job as PAOs is to help them tell their story, their messages to the public. Not to spill secrets or harm missions. As PAOs, we have to gain their trust and work as a team to demonstrate what we can bring to the table in terms of information dissemination. This can have a lasting positive effect on the mission and can aid SOF forces when interacting with host nations. And, yes I agree really with the last post that if we are marginalized to only cover COMREL events and feel-good stories, we can only be so effective. If we have a way to communicate operations in a way that does not compromise security, we should do so. This way, we are doing our part to contribute to the tactical picture LTJG Donnelly

by MAJ Jim Gregory on December 28, 2009 :

C.P. – Well put on all accounts. Thank you very much for the comments. I mentioned in the post that if we leave communication to only our senior leaders, we will not succeed in the information war. I also believe that if we continue to silo public communication efforts within any specific directorate (public affairs, IO, SC), we cannot succeed. Defining communication objectives and determining how to achieve them must become part of tactical, operational and strategic planning. My goal is to get others to think about communication objectives when planning and then consider how to disseminate them effectively. Oftentimes, social media is the best platform for getting relevant information out in the timeliest manner possible. Certainly, within special operations, challenges lie in finding the appropriate balance between protecting sensitive information and communicating effectively with key stakeholders. As you alluded, this condition presents a unique opportunity for SOF commanders at all levels, who must operate within the tight constraints of highly classified environments, to become experts in achieving the necessary communication balance and thus serve as an example to the rest of the military. As the current USSOCOM PAO, COL Tim Nye once told me -- Special Operations Forces are recognized globally as leaders in the development and application of tactics, techniques, procedures, and resourcing systems. So too should they be recognized as leaders in the information engagement arena. The same tenets of operational planning and trademarks of SOF leadership: flexibility, adaptability and aggressiveness, need to be adopted for information engagement planning and execution.

by Lorie Warchol on December 17, 2009 :

Jim, Great way to help convince others find a common bond with Generation X. The biggest opportunity to those of us, is struggling to change our habits from pushing the pencil and the PRINT button to actually learning to read and write vertically. Social media is a brilliant way to stay connected and communicate much more effectivly. Call me old fashioned but...I do love that one-on-one hand shake and eye contact that has seemed to become :o) or =+.... Thanks great blog.

by C. P. Smith on December 20, 2009 :

Yes, social media presents a few additional risks, but none that cannot be managed to the benefit of the SOF community. The foremost risk social media presents is that as more personnel outside of the Command suite are allowed to participate there is the potential for an organization's message to get clouded or diffused. Aside from that manageable risk, the perceived risk social media presents to the SOF community and its operations has likely been exaggerated. The resistance the SOF community may have to using social media may be rooted in both a fear of the unknown and a fear of loss of control of its message. Additionally, SOF, as a culture, have traditionally prided themselves on a low public profile often rationalizing limited communication as necessary to protect methods and personnel. Such justifications do not serve the SOF community’s best interests and are impractical given the increasing ease of information sharing and the ubiquity of the internet. Public Affairs appears to be a natural fit to serve as an intermediary between social media outlets and the SOF community, however Public Affairs and SOF appear historically to have an uncomfortable relationship. Public Affairs has often been perceived to provide limited benefit in relation to the risk of giving away some element of operations. As a result, Public Affairs’ external communication is often limited to covering minor stories, such as community relations projects, which garners little attention and interest, or alternatively, press releases of past operations with distribution to traditional media outlets that display little interest in the stories. Today's savvy information consumer wants relevant and timely news and most of what Public Affairs produces for external use does not support either. I have highlighted these issues because those who still find merit in restricting the use of social media have missed the huge change in information distribution and management. Recent unrest

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