DOD unlocks the gate to social interaction with the public

If the Defense Department’s social networking presence were a talk show, its senior strategist for emerging media, Jack Holt, would be the host.

Holt is helping usher DOD into the 21st century by using Web-based technologies to communicate with people, gather ideas and share information. Although no one can tame the social media beast, Holt is working to channel its immense power to free the lines of communication between the government and its people.

DOD initially staked its claim in the culture change with the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review's mandate for learning to communicate in an around-the-clock environment. But the department and its various organizations struggled with how to approach social networking until more definitive orders came with this year’s Directive Type Memorandum 09026, which set official DOD guidelines for social media use. Among other rules, the memo declared that the department’s nonclassified network, the Unclassified but Secure IP Router Network (NIPRnet), is open by default for the use of new media.

Now Pentagon officials are throwing open the virtual doors with the goal of making DOD more agile and accessible. Gone is the foreboding silence of compartmentalization: This DOD wants to talk with you — on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and especially on its own "DOD Live" blog, which was the department’s first foray into social media.

And the department is doing it all under Holt's oversight. He recently talked to FCW defense reporter Amber Corrin about rapidly evolving communications needs, the role DOD must play and how he plans to make it all happen.

FCW: Why is social media such a big issue for the Defense Department?

Holt: Somewhere around 2007, social media exploded. Facebook and Twitter changed the dynamics of communications. We started to see the benefits of initiatives like the DOD Blogger’s Roundtable, which had lots of items of interest rather than straight news.

All of that expanded the breadth of public communications and operations. But more than anything, it’s important for taxpayers to see what we’re doing and who we are. We need to meet the public need.

FCW: How do you see the landscape changing at DOD when it comes to new media?

Holt: People are now synchronizing around technology in different ways. Information, knowledge and communication are all associated and symbiotic, but they aren’t the same. The underlying technology facilitates [the differences among the three].

There are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained from internal knowledge management and communications. People are really starting to see that. These are tools that increase situational awareness.

Intelink is a really fine example of how this can work. It’s a suite of tools that work inside the DOD firewall; it has features like a blog and a wiki, which is a lot better than using Track Changes in a Word document that you have to keep tabs on. These are flexible tools that have revolutionized inside communications and processes. We’re seeing that there are more efficient ways of doing business here. It’s a good model.

There is a groundswell from social media that is facilitating and empowering the [military] services, engaging communities, and having discussions in public. This is a genie that’s not going back in the bottle.

FCW: How can social media help DOD?

Holt: The Directive Type Memorandum 09026 is a DOD policy statement for responsible and effective use of Internet capabilities. With that, we’re exploring these network capabilities, public communications and information, and the ability to listen to the general public.

Social media gives us opportunities to engage, step out and take chances if they’re advantageous to the mission. It’s an opportunity to explore since the NIPRnet is now open by default. By the same token, if we see a threat, we can restrict access. So it gives commanders the power to protect their own operations.

FCW: You’re a proponent of policy. What kind of policy does DOD need to develop to make social media work?

Holt: Doctrine has to shift to figure out the best way to implement the open NIPRnet. With policy, we have a responsibility to employees and troops to train them how to identify threats, how to comply and to understand the ramifications. This policy touches all of our troops.

We need training across the board: public affairs, the troops themselves, their families and DOD employees. Some of the troops are [using new] media on the battlefield, so what does that mean, and how do we uphold operational security? We have to understand that now many, many more people are listening.

So the DOD training plan is still developing. It’s still nascent. We’re working to determine how to best serve the public. There are already good guidelines out there, like the Federal Trade Commission’s OnGuard Online, the Military Health System’s Social Media Hub and U.S. Strategic Command’s social network training site. There are a lot of available training aids, and those are as good as anything that’s out there right now. We need to be educating ourselves and passing the information along, [and] educating our families, too.

FCW: How does DOD overcome the inherent security concerns of social media?

Holt: Ninety percent of security issues aren’t technical issues, they’re people issues. So we need the availability of teaching tools, and we need to build in persistent training behind the firewall. A lot of social media is built around delivering training. There are societies for artillery and infantry, for example. So security is about being part of the community, learning from each other, having access to tools and training. And we need to…design systems that take advantage of the tools that are already out there.


About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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