By MSG Michael PintagroNovember 5, 2009
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea - Commanders frequently insist on shouting a message "from the mountaintop," but one technologically savvy Army officer heading a brigade Public Affairs organization in Korea took his information even higher in early fall.
Maj. Mike Nicholson, a Public Affairs officer serving with the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, ventured into cyberspace in his quest to deliver his organization's message in a unique way.
Social media sites are popular vehicles for engaging mass audiences, but concerns over quality and message control have been a point of concern for some in uniform as the military is increasingly embracing the "blogosphere."
Thanks to Nicholson's efforts, the "Iron Brigade" marches at the forefront of military social media engagement efforts.
With his three-man enlisted support team gone due to the brisk rotation schedule of his Korea-based organization, Nicholson became his unit's only producer as well as its Public Affairs advisor. Nicholson served as a writer, photographer, videographer and even driver in addition to serving as a staff officer. As competing requirements pulled him in a dozen directions, Nicholson pondered ways to disseminate his message as efficiently as possible.
"I have been a one-man Public Affairs office for about five months trying to cover a heavy combat brigade with about 4,000 people in it," he said. "I have done a lot of work by myself, and I also tried to utilize photos and videos that others took as best I could. But our official unit and Army Web sites are just not structured for amateur content."
"I do a lot of work in social media and had always wanted to utilize those tools here in the unit," he added. "Once I became an office of one, it was even more important to me."
In September Nicholson established an "Iron Brigade" blog based heavily on "Soldier-Generated Content." The idea was to leverage brigade personnel as Public Affairs "combat multipliers." Nicholson encouraged any Soldier willing to take pictures, capture video or write text and submit their material to the Public Affairs office for publication on the blog.
"The blog allows us to break away from the traditional story, video and photo formats that you see on unit sites and be able to start utilizing more amateur products," he said. "It also allows me to have around 4,000 potential contributors instead of just the four Public Affairs personnel I'm authorized in a brigade."
The phrase "Soldier-Generated Content" is a military play on the expression "User-Generated Content," which came into widespread use with the rise of social media during the last half of the decade. Material created by amateurs producing as well as consuming the media is sometimes characterized as "User-Generated Content."
"Soldier-generated content looks more 'raw' and is less polished," Nicholson said. "This actually has a lot of appeal in an age when reality shows are everywhere and anyone can produce content for the web. It has a certain authenticity many viewers like. It is content that comes directly from an individual Soldier and hasn't been staffed through the public relations machine."
Nicholson still looks at material prior to posting it online; but he aims only to ensure operational security and professionalism rather than manipulate substance or achieve an agenda. "How they send products is how they go online, and I have not yet had to censor any submissions that I've received," he said.
Pfc. Kyle Ingle, a scout serving with 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st HBCT, was among the first to contribute to the blog site.
"It was different, being able to write and shoot photos and know that they would be put on our brigade Web site, but I really enjoyed doing it," he said. "I normally bring out a camera and shoot my own photos anyway, so it wasn't that unfamiliar."
Ingle already shares photos and information with friends and family through his Facebook account.
"My parents have Facebook, and because I move around a lot in the Army, it allows me to keep in touch with them and others, so they know what I'm doing," Ingle said.
The explosion of new media sites in the early part of the decade caught many organizations flat-footed. Today, Nicholson noted, "all of the top 20 most visited Web sites in the world are either a search engine or a social media Web site."
"Social media is all about the individual," he added. "For Public Affairs personnel, it is about taking your information to a place of your audience's choosing. For example, Facebook is the second most visited Web site in the world behind Google.com. If we're engaging our audience on sites they already use, we're more likely to reach them rather than sit back and just hope they come to our unit Web site."
Nicholson sees a role for both edited, professional-quality materials and informal products created by non-public affairs personnel.
"There is a time and place for both the polished Public Affairs products and for Soldier-generated content," he said. "We need to be working with both types of content on a variety of Web platforms in order for us to be more effective communicators."
After a month and a half online, Nicholson said, the Iron Brigade blog and supplementary sites are already paying rich dividends. "We're reaching large numbers of people who otherwise wouldn't have seen any of our material," he said.
"Just like operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we as an Army have had to focus on tribal and clan groups, these social media sites should be looked at as our digital 'tribes,' but tribes that are not bound by geography but by common interests," Nicholson said.
"Whether it is our Facebook fans, Twitter followers, or blog subscribers, these are people that for one reason or another are interested in what we're doing and are now able to follow us on a communication platform of their choosing."
The Iron Brigade blog and its accompanying social media sites can be found at www.ironbde.com . You can follow Maj. Mike Nicholson on his personal site at www.46alpha.com