Embracing Social Media
The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command leads the Army in delivering technological solutions to the Warfighter. The command is on the forefront of embracing new communication venues.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The people behind the often secret technology that makes America's Soldiers safer and more effective might not bea likely group to be going online to engage in social media tweeting, updating and posting, but that's where you will find the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

While the Department of Defense was taking its first steps in the social media realm RDECOM was plotting a strategy to engage in what the command sees as an increasingly important medium.

By the time DoD released an official social media policy Feb. 25, 2010, RDECOM and many other military units had already established thriving presences online.

The social media policy says DoD computers on the nonclassified network, known as the NIPRNET, will have open access to sites like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Under the new policy, open and consistent access should be offered across the board.

"We think it's an important tool to reach our Soldiers and Family Members," said then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. "The tradeoff, and the reason the discussions have gone on so long, is the security aspects of it."

RDECOM engagement

As the Army's science and technology command, RDECOM is a pioneer on most social media ventures, but not as many as it would like. Today, the command has nearly 1,000 Facebook and Twitter followers.

"We have to be careful," said Joseph Ferrare, a public affairs strategist with RDECOM. "One thing we would love to do is launch a site like Dell's IdeaStorm, where Soldiers could make suggestions about our technology and vote ideas up and down. This would be a great connection to the Warfighter in the field. But obviously, it would be a big operational security problem. Every fix Soldiers submitted might be related to a vulnerability the enemy could exploit to hurt Soldiers."

The command settled on more cautious first steps, establishing a presence on well-known sites such as Facebook and Twitter before launching the Army Technology Live blog in November 2009.

"We hope to advance the conversation about Army technologies, inform the public about Army initiatives and showcase the work of the Army technology team," Ferrare said.

In February 2010, RDECOM launched another communication initiative by developing and fielding an iPhone application. The free Army Technology Live app is available at the Apple iTunes Store for iPhone and iPod Touch users. The project puts all RDECOM messages, news and job announcements under one roof.

The command's social media process starts with a story and image on the official Army homepage. Social media echoes the message and offers opportunities for interaction and collaboration.

"We post the story to the official RDECOM homepage, and then to our blog, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and as appropriate, YouTube," Ferrare said. "We also have more informal posts, but we find the familiar article format to be a neat-and-complete way to work for most things. Shorter, less formal postings happen on the blog, Facebook, and other social media sites."

Each medium has its own niches. A Twitter posting is a message of 140 characters designed to include a shortened link and a searchable term. People with a message must craft key thoughts in a new and concise environment. Facebook postings are generally short, informal and conversational.

"We view social networking as the driving force behind major changes in modern communications," said Ferrare. "We're building a strong community of fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, and posting an enormous number of public images and videos to Flickr and YouTube.

"For a command that is at the forefront of technology, this is a must," Ferrare said. "Not only are we supporting a generation of Soldiers who are comfortable on these sites, we recruit from that same generation to fill vacancies in our command. The majority of our 17,000 people are civilian scientists and engineers. We have to be where they are."

Being where the audiences are is at the core of the social media phenomenon for many organizations. It means more people gathering information from alternative online sources in a dramatic shift away from post newspapers.

"The immediacy of posting images and stories during an event is an unmistakable advantage," Ferrare said. "Strategic communications are vital to our success in supporting Soldiers. All Americans need to know we're doing everything possible to make Soldiers strong and America safe, and social media offers the level of transparency they deserve."

Best practices

"The trick behind successful social media engagement is finding what works and then implementing that strategy," Ferrare said.

During an event with University of Delaware educators, RDECOM public affairs staff found out about third-party developers, which offer automation options to the major social media sites.

"Hootsuite is one such developer," Ferrare said. "We're able to post content to Facebook and Twitter automatically through RSS feeds."

Because USAJobs.gov offers a filtered RSS stream based on jobs available within Army commands, RDECOM social media now refreshes every two hours and publishes any new external job announcment with a link to the USAJobs.gov site.

"We also automatically post content from our official RDECOM site and the command's blog," he said.

Internal venues

The Army recently launched an internal social media site known as milSuite. The site offers military versions of popular social media initiatives. The milBlog site is where many organizations are telling their stories to an internal audience. RDECOM is fully engaged in posting content to milBlog.

An Army Knowledge Online account is necessary to access the sites in milSuite.

Gauging success

Some Army communities fully embrace social sites like Facebook as vibrant community forums. Community members ask questions, post comments and photos and interact with each other daily. The free flow of information is fast and furious. The Yongsan community in Korea has more than 4,000 Facebook followers and vibrant daily discussions (see related links).

The number of people who "like" your Facebook page is one way of gauging social media success. But, far more important is the number of fan interactions. In the social media world, interaction shows involvement, motivation and level of interest.

For example, "Popular Science" magazine has more than 10,000 Facebook fans and most of the commentary on the site's wall is posted by fans.

As the medium matures, some brands fare better than others. Proper use of social media turns unknown prospects into highly successful brands. For organizations pioneering this new world, the benefits are potentially enormous.

"Going forward with a social media plan must include research, cost-benefit analysis and proper execution," Ferrare said.

Knowing why to engage in social media is half the battle. An effective strategic communications plan must detail step-by-step how the organization will move forward.

"You have to produce compelling content or no one is going to bother becoming a fan or follower," Ferrare said. "We hope to highlight what RDECOM is doing to make Soldiers stronger through technology, but we have to do it within what have become the accepted rules for using those media."

With the current trend and trajectory of social media followers, officials hope compelling content meets the scrutiny of the next generation.

"This generation is the technology generation; technology drives their lives," Ferrare said. "This is also the generation destined to interact with each other in new ways. Whether we communicate in this realm is not the question; it is how we adapt our workflow to make it happen. It will happen."

The DoD Social Media policy welcomes and encourages Servicemembers and DoD employees to use new media to communicate with family and friends - at home stations or deployed. The Research, Development and Engineering Command will continue to tell the story of strength through technology in all communication venues.

Page last updated Thu August 19th, 2010 at 00:00