Armed With Social Media


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Recently, I was checking out a bunch of people on Twitter who began to follow my updates (I’m @dmscott). When I went to @AFPAA, I was surprised to see the Twitter ID belonged to the U.S. Air Force. At the time, there were fewer than 200 people following the Air Force, indicating someone new to Twitter (in contrast, I have well over 5,000 followers). I sent a DM (direct message) to find out what @AFPAA was doing and received an immediate answer from Capt. David Faggard, chief of emerging technology at the Air Force Public Affairs Agency (AFPAA) at the Pentagon. We traded a few emails and then spoke on the phone.

Faggard and his Air Force Emerging Technology team are responsible for developing strategy, policy, and plans for an ever-changing communication landscape for communicators worldwide. The team’s mission is to use current and developing Web 2.0 applications as a way to actively engage conversations between airmen and the general public. Yes, that’s right: The goal of the program is for every single airman to communicate online. With Faggard leading the charge, the Air Force employs 330,000 communicators.

While many corporations are scared witless about social media, we find a huge global organization firmly committed to using social media to spread stories, knowledge, and ideals. Faggard says that the focus is on direct action within social media (blogging, counterblogging, posting products to YouTube, etc.); monitoring and analysis of the social media landscape (relating to Air Force and airmen); and policy and education (educating all public affairs practitioners and the bigger Air Force on social media).

I asked about the unique challenges the U.S. armed forces faces when it comes to social media. In particular, I was intrigued by the term "counterblogging," which Faggard says is when "airmen counter the people out there in the blogosphere who have negative opinions about the U.S. government and the Air Force."

"We obviously have many more concerns regarding cyberspace than a typical social media user," Faggard says. "I am concerned with how insurgents or potential enemies can use social media to their advantage. It’s our role to provide a clear and accurate, completely truthful and transparent picture for any audience."

Airmen must be accurate within parameters of safety. A 19-year-old soldier based in Afghanistan doesn’t just go and update his or her Facebook status with his or her exact location and duties. "We educate people in the Air Force about security of social media to make sure that people don’t expose secrets via Twitter or Facebook or some other media," Faggard says. "However, many airmen are really smart, and communications can be very valuable to families and friends back home, so we don’t want to close it down completely."

Besides Twitter, Faggard writes The Official Blog of the U.S. Air Force (www.airforcelive.blogspot.com); has pages on MySpace and Facebook; helps publicize a Second Life area called Huffman Prairie; contributes to iReport (user name USAFPA); and is on Friendfeed, Digg, Delicious, Slashdot, Newsvine, and Reddit. There’s even a video mashup contest for high schools to show their school spirit sponsored by the Air Force at http://usaf.ihigh.com.

It’s not just the Air Force. Several months ago, I led a training session organized by Staff Sgt. Alexis Mulero, public affairs chief for the communicators in the 1st Marine Corps Recruiting District. Since most teens and young adults spend lots of time on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites, a major challenge in recruiting young people into the Marines is reaching them online. As a result of a focus on social media, Mulero says that his team has greatly increased the positive exposure of the Corps across the Northeastern U.S.

Back at the Air Force, Faggard’s team has grown from three to 16 people in just a few months. "There has been resistance; but the leadership of the Air Force is very supportive of what the expert communicators say are the best ways to reach people. So if I need to speak to 18-year-olds, then they are supportive of using tools like Facebook, which I need to reach them. We are on the verge of a revolution, and it is an information revolution. The Air Force is doing new things and we’re on the forefront. We’ll make mistakes, but it is kind of cool to see what we can do."