WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2009 – Social media has become all the rage throughout the military as a growing number of senior leaders turn to blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter entries and other social networking venues to get word out about their activities and engage new audiences.

Commands exploring the best way to get involved in social media might want to consider the experience of U.S. Southern Command, the first combatant command to embrace these new communication forms.

Sarah Nagelmann, who served as Southcom’s strategic communications director, had a receptive audience when she first pitched the concept of a commander’s blog last fall to Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis.

Nagelmann didn’t envision a blog posted under Stavridis’ name, but filled with other people’s entries. She wanted the commander, who moved on last month to the top posts at U.S. European Command and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, to do the writing.

“The commander has to own his or her own voice,” Nagelmann told American Forces Press Service. “As soon as you delegate that communication platform, it loses its impact.”

Readers are too savvy to confuse material written by a staffer, particularly a public affairs person, with the words of the commander, she said. The language becomes stilted. The leader’s personality is lost, and with it, the authenticity of the message.

“And once you lose that authenticity, I think people are more hesitant to engage on that platform,” Nagelmann said.

That misses the whole point of social media: generating a dialogue with audiences the commander might never have had the opportunity to interact with otherwise.

“Once you lose that authenticity, their incentive to participate goes down,” Nagelmann said. “You have lost the utility of the platform.”

Nagelmann can’t imagine why a military command would elect not to engage in the increasingly popular social media. By some estimates, more than 60 million people maintain a blog. Meanwhile, the MySpace and Facebook social networking sites have quickly risen to become the most-visited U.S. Web sites.

“If we choose not to engage in this platform, we will be represented by others, and we lose the opportunity to represent ourselves,” she said. “That cost is just too high to ignore. There is absolutely an opportunity cost in not engaging.”

In fact, Nagelmann recommends that commanders compound the effectiveness of their social media outreach by empowering their people to represent the organization through their social networking efforts.

“If we can ensure everyone affiliated with an organization understands what we do, why we do it and why it matters, and give them the ability — empower them — to communicate that, then we have created a really strong capability, and one that will touch a lot more corners than relying on one voice alone,” she said. “It can become a really powerful mechanism.”

But Nagelmann, who accompanied Stavridis to Eucom and SHAPE as his strategic communications advisor, also recommends that commands formulate at least a basic plan before launching a social networking effort.

“We have to think deliberately about what we want out of these platforms before we just jump in willy-nilly,” she said. “Using them the wrong way isn’t advantageous because you’re not generating the response or reaction you are looking to create.”

Engagement, she emphasized, is what social media is all about. Unlike traditional media, social media opens the dialogue to a broader population, eliminating barriers so more people are able to offer ideas and share their expertise and experience.

“We are looking to provide information and to create dialogue,” she said. “If we don’t do that in a way that enables others to participate, if it is always one-way transmit, then I think that’s a danger. We’ve lost the effectiveness.”

Nagelmann said she’s satisfied with the results of Southcom’s initial foray into social media, but sees more opportunity yet to be tapped.

“What we have enabled is a way for others who do not know how to interact with Southcom to send us comments, questions, thoughts, reactions to any number of things,” she said. “We have provided a mechanism that is accessible globally and allows others to find us and enter into conversation with us where, before, the barriers to entry were incredibly high.”

Looking at the feedback Southcom received through its early social networking efforts, Nagelmann has one complaint: it’s been too positive. She’d like to see more constructive criticism.

“We want feedback about where our strategies are working and where we can do better,” she said. “Critical feedback is the point. We are giving people the opportunities to say, ‘I understand what you are doing and I appreciate the perspective. Here is an alternative one.

“Once we get to that point, I think we will have a meaningful platform.”

As more commands enter social networking, Nagelmann urges them to be willing to try new things and recognize that mistakes are an inevitable part of the process.

“We have to be open to experimenting and occasionally making mistakes and learning from them,” she said.

She also reminds commands not to forget that social networking is just one of many tools for communicating their messages.

“A lot of us are jumping at ‘bright and shiny objects’ because this new media space is interesting and fun, it’s exciting and changing,” she said. “But in reality, it’s simply another venue. It doesn’t replace anything. It’s an additional mechanism to transmit and receive information.”

Social media isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t reach the entire audience, she said. “It’s complementary to all those other mediums out there, just one more way to reach out, engage and initiate dialogue,” she said.

“But if we choose not to participate, and cede our voice to others in this environment, that is going to do us no good,” she said. “We are finally beginning to understand the power of this platform. And the uses are almost endless.”

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