The Air Force Does a "180" (Well, Maybe a 90)

The Air Force has discovered social media.

A number of blogs, including Global Nerdy and WebInkNow have lavished praise on the USAF for its commitment to the blogosphere and such cutting-edge venues as YouTube, Twitter, and Face Book, among others.

David Scott at WebInk believes the Air Force is well ahead of most large organizations in its embrace of social media:

In an environment where many corporations are scared witless about social media, here a huge global organization firmly committed to social media communications to spread messages, stories, knowledge and ideals. Capt. [David] Faggard [Chief of the Emerging Technology Branch for Air Force Public Affairs] says that the focus is on: “Direct Action within Social Media (blogging, counter-blogging, 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).”
While I was amazed that the Air Force is doing so much while many in the private sector are still doing so little, I asked about the unique challenges faced by the US armed forces when it comes to social media. In particular, I was intrigued by the term “counter-blogging” which Capt. Faggard says is when “Airmen counter the people out there in the blogosphere who have negative opinions about the US government and the air force.”

Faggard tells Mr. Scott that the service employs 330,000 “communicators,” which (coincidentally) equals the number of active duty, guard and reserve personnel currently assigned to the USAF. Under the Air Force’s new social media strategy, every single airman is a potential on-line communicator.

Well, almost. While the service’s move into social media is commendable, the USAF remains somewhat ambivalent towards the blogosphere, and participation by its personnel. Less than a year ago, the Air Force blocked access to virtually any independent site with “blog” in its web address. That means that USAF members can’t access most military or defense blogs–including this one–from their computers at work.

Accoring to the Air Force, the ban isn’t aimed at specific blogs. When the service switched to BlueCoat web filtering in early 2008, the new software blocked almost anything that contained blog as part of its URL. The system is flexible, allowing network monitors to override restrictions imposed by the software. But, at last report, the USAF’s general restrictions on workplace blog access remained in place.

While airmen are free to visit blogs and social network sites on their personal computers, the service cautions against posting information that might be classified or violate operational security (OPSEC). The USAF also warns that a service member’s blog can be used as evidence against them if they write about illegal acts, or acts under investigation.

Those restrictions are consistent across DoD, but the Air Force policy falls well short of the Navy, which “recognizes the value of this communication channel,” and “encourages the use of blogs,” as long as personnel adhere to limits on content.

Additionally, the USAF hasn’t produced its equivalent of Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the Commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, and a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq. In a now-famous post, General Caldwell observed that, in struggles where perception is often as important as bombs and bullets, “soldiers ought to be encouraged and equipped to wage that information war on their own.”

We should note that Caldwell’s position is somewhat contrary to official Army policy, including a 2007 mandate that required blog posts be approved by the soldier’s commander and OPSEC officer before publication. After a firestorm of protests, the service offered a clarification on its policy, saying that troops should received “guidance and awareness training” before launching a blog.

Not surprisingly, Captain Faggard says there has been “some resistance” to the Air Force web initiative. But USAF leadership is behind the effort, and his staff will grow from three persons to 16 in the coming months. As Faggard told WebInk, “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.”

Equally amazing is the service’s (apparent) change-of-heart on the blogosphere and social media. Less than two years ago, we had a conversation with a senior Air Force public affairs representative. At the time, that civilian official told us that the USAF had “no plans” to engage bloggers, because studies showed that “most people don’t get their news and information from blogs.”

Clearly, Air Force leaders–and their public affairs apparatus–have adopted a different view of the blogosphere. Among his other duties, Captain Faggard now runs the service’s official blog, and spearheads the USAF presence on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and other web outlets. And, if that’s not enough, you can even get your own, Air Force news widget.

While these ventures are a step in the right direction, it’s too early to declare them a total success. The Air Force blog offers the same material as the service’s official website. Recent posts include a promo for a new HBO film that includes USAF personnel; a sortie surge at Charleston AFB, South Carolina and the annual holiday message from the president.

In other words, if you’re looking for controversial or delicate subjects, you probably won’t find them on the official blog. That’s to be expected, but it may also represent a fundamental flaw. The dynamic, fast-flowing blogosphere allows organizations to get ahead of the information curve, even if the topic is less-than-flattering.

We wonder how the Air Force blog would handle something like the Minot nuclear incident, when the public affairs system went NORDO, and official information was sometimes hard to come by. It will be interesting to see if the USAF’s blogging and social media sites tackle more controversial issues, even if they’re only reacting to news coverage or posts at other web sites. That may represent the ultimate test for Captain Faggard and his team.

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ADDENDUM: The USAF has developed a process for responding to blog posts, outlined in this flow chart. Among the options listed are monitoring the site, responding in the blog’s comments section, or “restoration,” defined as resplying and acting on a reasonable solution.