By Kristin Molinaro, The BayonetJanuary 19, 2011
FORT BENNING, Ga. - As social media reinvents the Web through online videos, chats and Facebook pages, Fort Benning has found a new tool in talking to troops and families.
More than 14,000 people tuned in to the Facebook Town Hall Wednesday, with nearly 150 posting questions during the hourlong event.
The event was a huge success, with directorates answering more than 80 questions in the allotted time, said Col. Thomas Macdonald, who led the post's first Facebook Town Hall.
"I was convinced today that this is a good way to exchange information with the community," said the colonel following the event. "The neat thing about this is that it allows those who aren't near Fort Benning to participate and that's a new dynamic."
Fort Benning's Facebook page has more than 49,500 followers - one of the largest of the Army's social media pages - and receives hundreds of questions and comments daily. The Fort Benning Public Affairs Office originally created the site as a place for families of Soldiers in training to connect, support one another and ask questions. Since its creation in 2009, the site has morphed into a place for conversation, breaking news and, most recently, town halls.
Macdonald and officials from directorates postwide gathered inside the Doughboy Room at Ridgway Hall to answer questions via Facebook during a one-hour session.
"Honestly, I think this is the first time this has been attempted in the Army," said Brandon Cockrell, chief of plans, analysis and integration. "If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world ... it's a new media ... this is a whole new way we can reach out and touch Soldiers, families, retirees, civilians and people who are coming to Fort Benning."
The idea for a town hall hosted online came from Fort Benning webmaster Anthony O'Bryant, social media lead Sue Ulibarri and Tiffani Migliore, a management and program analyst with the garrison command staff. The three were drumming up ideas to get more families to attend town halls.
"It started with a joke that our Facebook page is our official site for conversations, and that's really how it started," O'Bryant said.
The webmaster said bringing town halls online was a natural evolution of the post's efforts to get information out to Soldiers.
"It allows us to have a two-way conversation. The interaction back and forth provides them with a better answer because we are able to directly, specifically get to what they are asking. There's definitely a place for traditional town halls, that face-to-face time is important, this is just another way we can add to it," he said.
"There was a good, diversified amount of questions," said O'Bryant of Wednesday's town hall. "We had someone ask about what Fort Benning is doing to keep Soldiers and their families safe in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings and other events. Terrific, legitimate question. We had questions on child care, sidewalks, traffic. We were able to supply a lot of great information about housing and provide some avenues for folks to get solutions to challenges they may be having."
In the weeks leading up to the town hall, the site received more than 2.5 million hits. The day of the town hall, 199 new fans joined the site. Thirty-two percent of its fan base is in the 18-24 year old demographic, its primary target. During the event, more than 200 comments, questions and answers were tallied in the Town Hall thread.
"I had high expectations because we have an active following on Facebook and we had really good advertisement, I knew a lot of people would participate. I knew it might be chaotic and that came to fruition," Macdonald said. "We captured (or) answered about 200 questions in an hour. I can tell you that when we do a town hall in a neighborhood, they take an hour and a half to two hours and we don't get near enough time to answer 200 questions. This was a lot faster and more efficient."
Macdonald cited a town hall held the previous night in a McGraw Village where only one family attended and said while it is important to continue traditional town halls, many families find challenges in attending and Facebook has opened up another option.
"Lots of people have computers, many follow Facebook. This allows us to host a town hall not just in a neighborhood, but for people living off post and in other states."
Fort Benning's webmaster said a few initiatives are on the way for the Facebook page including a new feature called "Focused Conversations," a hosted conversation with a subject matter expert at Fort Benning, such as a Ranger, drill sergeant or directorate leader.
"We have a lot of folks who are new to the Army and their loved ones are now at Fort Benning training. They have a lot of questions. We think this is a way to get a big amount of great information out," he said.
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