Facebook is not always the answer ... but it's a good start

  • Published
  • By Capt. Darrick B. Lee
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, Chief
I knew it was inevitable.

Despite the cries from our cyberwarriors about vulnerabilities, I knew it was coming. No matter how many times the word "OPSEC" was thrown about, I knew it was inevitable that the demand for social media would find its way into the military workplace.

Some refer to social Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr as "new media," but they're not really new. Facebook was created in 2004; Twitter in 2006. Since then, Airmen representing military units were surfing these sites using an unofficial "blog-first, beg-for-forgiveness-later" policy. As a public affairs officer, I remember having verbal jousts with communications squadrons that faced the challenge of protecting our networks while not hindering the flow of information. Not having a DoD-wide policy sometimes left units to figure this out for themselves.

Each time I got the "RESTRICTED" error while trying to access social-networking sites online, I'd later be on the help-desk phone line with Senior Airman P. C. Protector. He'd hear me begging like a teenage kid bartering with his parents.

"Why can't I access Facebook," I'd exclaim, throwing in an impatient sigh just for effect. "The commander wants me to find out what people think of the airshow, and if I don't log on now, I'll have to wait until I get home to find out!"

My pleas fell on deaf ears.

"Sorry sir," the Airman would abruptly reply, trying hard to hold in his snickering after hearing me whine. "It's not authorized. It's not for official business."

"PLEEEEEEEASE? All the cool bases are doing it," I retaliated. "Besides, I heard Langley's Comm. Squadron lets THEM surf the 'net unrestricted." (I thought surely THIS was enough justification to get the Airman to single-handedly change base network policy . As it turns out, not so much.)

No matter how many of those battles I lost -- and, to my recollection, I lost them all -- I knew one day we would find a way to prove that social media could help support "official business."

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense issued a memo authorizing the use of these types of sites by service members while on a government-run network. Since then, units are more comfortable using Facebook. So much so that it seems like Facebook is becoming the standard answer to any problem, for better or for worse.

Do you want to let people know about upcoming events in your unit? Build a Facebook page!

Do you need a new way to pass repetitive information that folks may have grown tired of hearing? Build a Facebook page!

Are there not enough visitors to your unit's Facebook page? Build a Facebook page!

You get the idea. As the PAO for the 35th Fighter Wing, I often receive calls from people wanting to know how to integrate Facebook into their plans. For most, I sense they want to learn more about how Facebook can help people stay in touch with their unit. But, for some, I sense they're just on the bandwagon. They're starting a page because, well, "everybody else is doing it," and they hope it can help create more awareness about issues the unit is experiencing, or solve some communications problem.

To these few, I say: Facebook is not the answer to everything. We should only commit to using Facebook if we're being honest about our willingness and ability to talk about what we're doing and accept criticism for it. If you're thinking you can use Facebook to post relevant information, but are not committed to replying to responses and providing timely, truthful information, you're missing the boat -- or, er, bandwagon.

What about the rest of us? What about those units who want to reach the public and are willing to commit time to responding to status updates online? What's the right way for units to use Facebook?

The DoD policy simply allows units to grant access to social networking sites; how to use the sites can vary, according to each branch of service. For Airmen, a good place to start is with the Pacific Air Forces Guide for Web 2.0 Communicators. It gives tips on how to effectively use social media.

Part of the guide includes a "Web post response assessment." It helps determine if a comment you see online requires a response, and it offers ways you can do so.

When asked, I echo some of the points in the guide:
  • When reviewing comments, correct errors in fact, but avoid over-censoring posts. If someone posts a comment that disagrees with information you've posted, consider letting it stand as long as their comment is factually correct and is not bashing, ranting or unnecessarily negative/
  • Be yourself. This should go without saying, but people can detect fluff from a mile away. If a Web surfer thinks your Facebook page only gives the company line, you're not likely to get a second Web hit from them. To be effective, post what you want people to know -- in plain English with no military jargon -- and then respond to comments quickly and objectively.

The Wing is in the process of creating its own Facebook page, keeping these points in mind. As your units do the same, I encourage you to visit PACAF's Web site at www.pacaf.af.mil and check out their social media tools. Or visit the DoD's social media Web site, www.socialmedia.defense.gov, to see how our sister services are establishing their online presence.

Using Facebook isn't guaranteed to get the results your unit is looking for, but it's a great way to hear from others about possible solutions.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make a phone call to a certain communications Airman and yell, "Nyah-na-na-NYAH-NYAH," into the phone.