I have officially moved to a self-hosted site for PAOknow.
Please go to www.paoknow.net See you there!
I have officially moved to a self-hosted site for PAOknow.
In this vlog I introduce myself and then rock out to some radio hits.
Sometimes the waters are so deep that you can’t always see what you’re diving into. Social media in the military is still very murky, but if we don’t take a dive without a life preserver we won’t know if there are any pearls at the bottom. This article speaks volumes in this regard.
I recently conducted media training for a group of Soldiers in my unit and in doing some research I came across a quote from Rupert Murdoch (the billionaire media entrepreneur who owns Fox News) which said,
“Technology is shifting the power away from the editors, the publishers, the establishment, the media elite. Now it’s the people who are in control.”
Then I though to myself, “Hey, I’m an editor, I’m a publisher, I’m in the military establishment…I still have control don’t I?” As a public affairs specialist I write the news, take the photos, get the interviews, and produce the products that get sent out to our internal and public audiences. Generally speaking, I go home with the satisfaction that I’m contributing to telling my unit’s and the Army’s story. Then I came across a video where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that it is embarrasing that Al Qaida is better a delivering it’s message than the U.S.
I have been hearing for a few years now that we are losing the information war but it never really hit home until now. With all of our training, resources and talent, how is it that our message, our story, is falling on deaf ears? What is it that our enemy does that we can’t do better at? I pretty much stayed up all night thinking about this and my job in public affairs. Did my eight years as a military journalist amount to anything? Where did we go wrong in the first place? How can we turn the information battle back to our favor?
The answer to these questions came to me as I was thinking about the whole internet and social media revolution. In my opinion, military public affairs has to fundamentally change the way we tell our story to the public. I know many will say that the DoD has already realized this because of their endorsement and utilization of popular social media sites to “tell our story.” While I certainly applaud and support this effort, I feel like even more “immediate” and “drastic” measures need to be taken sooner rather than later. The military culture has to let go of its desire to control, sanitize, craft and “official-ize” the news we “release” to the public.
It won’t make a difference in eyes of the public if every military unit has a YouTube, Facebook and Twitter account if everything that is posted to these sites are the same packaged products that are concocted by public affairs offices. People will still see these products for what they are, “productions.” And the perception of “productions” is that they are not “real.” The whole social media revolution is based on real people having real conversations about real issues. A PAO product in the eyes of the public is no different than a corporation infomercial about their latest “success story.”
I can’t outright blame the military PAO leadership for this perception. In the world of traditional media (TV, radio, print) it is the PAO who is trained to get our story on these mediums in the quickest amount of time to the biggest audience as possible with the appropriate “command messages.” And if we don’t take ownership of the truth and the message, then somebody else will.
In the past, my PAO role in this effort was quite clear and simple for me — It is me, the PAO, that is charged with educating and informing our audiences with the efforts our servicemembers are making to defend the Constitution and the American way. Without me, the PAO, how else would the American taxpayer know what their hard-earned dollars were being spent on in the military? Without me, how would the public get our side of the story to counter the other perceptions created by organizations and people outside the military?
Well, with traditional media, I can see how traditional public affairs doctrine is quite necessary to wage the information war on these fronts. But with the explosion of the internet and social media, traditional military public affairs doctrine is simply no longer effective, in my opinion.
The internet and social media has forever changed the way people process and digest information. Corporate advertising is the act of throwing millions of dollars into TV, magazines, billboards and radio in an effort to get people to buy their shaving cream over their enemy’s shaving cream. It is an information war. But now with the internet, a growing majority of people no longer believe or are swayed by a corporate packaged message. The number one reason, in my opinion, that people buy things on the internet is because they can read the countless reviews from real people who have used the product themselves.
The reason more and more newspapers, magazines and TV shows are moving their businesses to the internet is because the advertisers have seen the writing on the wall – traditional media doesn’t sell (at least not like it used to).
How does this all relate to PAO in the 21st century? It’s all about the messenger. As is stands today, the PAO is the military’s messenger to the public. WE get servicemembers and family members in front of OUR cameras, WE write down the best quotes, WE write moving and powerful speeches, WE take the photos that speak a thousand words, WE control the content on OUR Web sites, WE decide what videos, photos and stories get posted to Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, WE do all of these things over and over hoping to feed the world OUR story, and yet if the greater public perceives that our stories are nothing more than a shaving cream commercial created by a corporate military PR department, then WE have lost the information war.
The social media revolution is really an information revolution. The backbone of this revolution is all about being real. If I step outside of my job as a PAO and think about what information in this day and age really moves me and really gets to me to come back for more, it’s real people talking about their lives, their personal experiences, their fears, their triumphs and their struggle.
Some might say that it is the PAO that delivers all these things to the public. While that may be true, the problem is that in these times of transparency and immediacy, the amount of REAL military life that a PAO can deliver is a drop in the bucket compared to what military folks on their own can deliver themselves. And it’s all because of the capabilities of the internet and social media.
A servicemember or military family member has the ability to tell his or her story on their own terms whenever they want and as real and honest as they want right NOW. As a PAO if I hear about a Soldier doing something awesome, here is the familiar process that takes place to let the world know:
-I have to contact the Soldier’s unit and arrange to meet with the Soldier at a time when he or she is hopefully doing that awesome thing. This arranged meeting can take a hour or a couple of days depending on both of our schedules, responsibilities or distance.
-I then have to physically go out to the Soldier’s location which can be 10 minutes or four hours away.
-I then commence to interview, record and capture the Soldier doing his or her awesome thing. I then interview his or her friends, co-workers and supervisors to get their take on the awesome thing.
-Whether or not I drive back to my workplace or do it at the place of the coverage, I then have to sift though the interview notes and upload the photos and/or video footage.
-Whether I am a print journalist or a broadcaster, I then begin writing or producing the story. This can take anywhere from an hour to a few days again depending on the scope or breadth of the story or other scheduled events or time restraints.
-Once the story is finished it then has to go an editor, usually a co-worker or supervisor with a few years more of PAO experience. The editor scrubs the story for grammatical errors, context, use of command messages, conciseness, propriety, accuracy and security, just to name a few. This can also take anywhere from a half hour to a few days depending on the circumstances.
-The story is then approved for release. The journalist or broadcaster then puts the story in a formatted press or video release and blasts the story out to the appropriate internal and external media source that might be interested in publishing the story. Emails are sent, the unit’s Web site is updated (and now Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Delicious, etc. is updated), and phone calls of story receipt confirmation are made. PAO mission accomplished.
While this scenario takes many shapes and forms, I believe most would agree that this is the norm. All in all, you are looking at anywhere from two hours to a week to get ONE story sent out for publication.
Now take the same scenario but put it in the hands of Soldier using modern technology, the internet and social media:
-A Soldier starts doing an awesome thing and wants his or her friends or family to see it. He or she uses a Flip camera or iPhone to record themselves doing the awesome thing and then talk about it.
-The Soldier has a few options here. He or she can either post the awesome thing to all of their social media sites seconds after recording it, or they can even stream their awesome thing live to the internet if they have the right device and software application.
-The Soldier may want to edit the footage themselves, so this can take anywhere from an hour to a few days.
All in all, you are looking at either NOW or a few days for a Soldier to publish something to the world. Then imagine the amount of real stories and footage that would get sent out to the world if Soldiers all over the Army are doing the same thing. PA offices are simply not staffed big enough to capture all the REAL things happening to members of a unit. A key point to make is that is not just the immediacy at which the Soldier can publish something awesome, it’s also the fact that it’s more personal, raw, and it’s more REAL.
The terms NEWS, STORY and REAL are being redefined by technology, the internet and social media.
A key reason the Tiger Woods scandal is as big as it is because instead of answering the public’s questions and setting the record straight live, now, as soon as possible, real, personal, raw…he chose to release some crafted messages to his Web site that only fueled the fire and raised more speculation, doubt, anger, confusion, and questions than it gave answers.
Couple that with the speed of the internet and sharing information, the onslaught of circumstantial evidence of his alleged affairs quickly mounted and found him guilty in the court of public opinion. The point here is that the internet no longer allows any person or organization that is in the pubic eye to control their message or perception. Whatever is deemed to be the most REAL is the only thing that the public will comfortably swallow. His Web site release did not stand a chance against the public hearing the RAW voice message of him talking to one of his alleged mistresses.
If you compare his situation and David Letterman, clearly Letterman did the smart thing by airing his dirty laundry in the quickest way possible. His story quickly became yesterday’s news because everything was out in the open.
So back to the military information war. Another key point in all of this is that if the PAO continues to use traditional or doctrinal forms of news gathering and information dissemination within social media, it is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
Our “real”-ness is becoming more and more clouded and overshadowed by the possibilities and realities of new media.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that all PAOs should turn in their cameras, put down their pens or shut of their cameras. I am saying that PAOs should find ways to also enable and encourage their servicemembers and family members to tell their own stories if they want to, and teach them how.
A Facebook upload of a packaged news release or video story is like a shark trying to fit in and join the U.S. national swim team by wearing a pair of speedos and goggles. No matter how much the shark packages himself, he will never fit in because he’s not being as real as he could be. Granted, the shark wouldn’t have a chance on the team anyway, but at least if he were real, raw and honest, he would get respectfully declined from the team rather than looked on as something trying to be someone they’re not.
People reading this might think that I’m not giving the military enough credit for the strides they are currently making in the realm of public affairs and new media. It’s quite the opposite. As a public affairs practitioner in the military myself, I absolutely applaud the current efforts, and I most likely would not be writing this if they hadn’t decided to embrace social media.
But what I am clearly trying to get across in this is that with all this new media and internet explosion, the military will have a very short window of opportunity to make a “real” first impression of it’s presence on the social media front. The same traditional public affairs doctrine cannot be applied to the social media revolution because a “revolution” means a deliberate revolt against an oppressive or intolerable system or establishment.
In PAO, the “established” means of telling our story to the public are quickly becoming a hindrance and liability in the effort to win the information war. This generation and especially the one that will follow it wants it REAL and they want it NOW.
I am also not saying that we throw caution to the wind in terms of Operational Security. There will have to be extensive and comprehensive training that our servicemembers receive when utilizing new media. Trust will be a huge hurdle in this regard.
As I’m writing this I know I am preaching to a number of choirs, especially to the PAO community, but if you’ve read this far then I’ve said something of worth to you and that’s all I could ask for.
All servicemembers in the very near future will have portable devices that will keep them connected to one large military network. These devices should also allow them to show the human and real side of their brave journeys to the world at a moment’s notice. The power of personal and real-time information is a thousand times more effective than any bomb, any tank, or any press release. It’s up to the PAO community to leverage 21st century technology with a 21st century military in a 21st century culture.
Some of my ideas to make this happen are as follows:
-Writing in the third person must die. Whether the servicemember writes something or a PAO, it must all be in first person. “I” is the essence of “real” and people connect and relate better to an “I” that is not just used in a direct quote.
-The Press or News Release must die. Every member of the press and a growing general public knows that these releases are overly formulated and completely devoid of anything genuine. It often assumes that its contents is the only information that the press or the public needs to know at a particular time. It also paints a unit as a faceless and inhuman entity. If something awesome or something tragic happens in a military unit, help those most closely involved with it tell it from the first person with the full range of emotions. Don’t package it and don’t ensure that a command message it strategically placed in it. A raw, real account of an event will permeate with the press and public any day over a controlled and sanitized press release.
-Command messages must die. These are the most pretentious, useless weapons in the entire PAO tool kit. That fact the PAOs are trained on how to create and inject these into a human interaction is beyond me. In my short eight years in public affairs I can count on one hand the amount of times I saw a command message hold any water with a member of the press. The most absolutely unreal thing anyone could say in the course of an interview, statement or press release is a command message. Only the savviest PAOs with acting backgrounds can pull off using a command message that doesn’t come across as a scripted response. Even the White House press speaker uses them ad nauseum. Command messages do nothing but make us look like assembly-line corporate rhetoric machines with guns held to our heads rather than real humans speaking from the heart what they know.
-Web sites should be a reflection of the people in a unit, not the institutions of a unit. Too many military Web sites are completely devoid of the human element. The two humans beings that are static displays on a Web site are the commander and command sergeant major. But you always only get their official photo and the same crafted military bio. The bios could a least be a first person introduction to showcase the “person”ality of the command group rather than listing their humanless past assignments, accomplishments and decorations. (By the way, the listing of a leader’s awards and decorations really, really has to die) The other parts that make up the site is all the institutional factoids such as unit history, unit mission and vision, subordinate units, mission essential task lists, phone rosters, staff functions, equipment descriptions, etc. All these things are almost always displayed in text with little or no visual or human connection. Any mentions of other people in the unit are only found in the “news” sections of a site when a military journalist was able to get the story. And the only real human and personal part of these news stories are the one or two direct quotes from the servicemember that get included in the body of a story. Things are getting better. Many sites now have a “social media” section where people browsing the site can “connect” with the unit. The problem is that people don’t want to “connect” to an inanimate object, they want to connect with people. In my view, a unit’s Web site should be a living and breathing visual hub of the human experience in the unit front and center. Text should give way to graphics and photos should give way to video. A complete visual experience will keep a Web surfer’s interest in a unit much better. A video on the home page of a Soldier giving a first-person account of his day in the motor pool would get more clicks and views than a unit’s premiere feature story packaged in a 1000-word news release. The “news” section would be replaced by a “people” section with blogs, vlogs, twitter feeds, podcasts, personal photos and videos, live video streams, and links to personal web and social sites. The PAO’s job would be to facilitate the “humanization” of the unit Web site into a visual experience and move all text factoids to a Wikipedia link.
-Media training will take second place to social media training. I am not understating the importance of training a Soldier on how to talk with a member of the press, but I am saying that this phenomenon happens so rarely in the 21st century compared to a Soldier’s interaction with social media. I would much rather concentrate my time on educating a Soldier on how to safely use social media to get their real story out rather than telling them about the myriad of ways a member of the press will try to get them to say something they shouldn’t and hope they remember all my response techniques when they are cornered by a blood-sucking heartless reporter while having a drink at the bar.
These things would go a long way to showing the real, human and personal side of the military that would forever change the perception that we are a faceless corporate, political cog in a government administration without an opinion, emotion or individuality. The social media revolution is the military’s biggest opportunity to shift the information momentum back to the winning team. The swimming pool of credibility is filling up fast and we don’t want to look like a shark jumping in wearing speedos.
My final thoughts are these:
None of this will happen over night and it will take bold, outside-of-the-box people to change the PAO status quo.
We not losing the information war because of our failure to get the right message out to the public, we are losing the information war because the public wants a REAL message right NOW whether it’s right or not.
The truth always comes out in the wash.