Centcom Taps Social Media to Promote Engagement, Understanding
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
TAMPA, Fla., Jul. 24, 2013 Check out a U.S. Central Command posting on one of some 120 social media sites, and you are as likely to see an image of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque or a favorite family recipe as a mention of a U.S. military operation in the region.
It’s a formula that’s connecting Centcom with more than 100,000 people from the Middle East and Central Asia every week, occasionally hitting the half-million mark with a particularly compelling posting, reported Army Col. J.R. Robinson, the command’s public affairs officer.
Centcom has a dedicated digital engagement team, made up of about a dozen people who were born in or spent considerable time within the command’s 20-nation area of responsibility, Robinson said. Applying their understanding of the region’s various cultures and languages, the team members spend their days surfing popular social media platforms and engaging in seven different languages: Farsi, Urdu, Pashtu, Dari, Arabic, Russian and English.
The nature of their blogs, tweets and Facebook and other social media postings has changed significantly since Centcom uploaded its first blog in 2009, Robinson said.
The command’s initial foray into social media was directed primarily at intellectual and academic sites, typically to refute unintentional mistakes or flagrant misinformation about the United States and its activities, he said.
More often than not, the tone of the rebuttals was insistent and even argumentative -- “more ‘in-your-face’ than it should have been,” Robinson acknowledged. The risk, he said, was losing the audience the command was hoping to cultivate.
“We are not trying to win arguments. We are trying to win relationships,” Robinson said. “At the end of the day, if we win the argument but they stop listening to us because they don’t enjoy having a conversation with us, we haven’t improved our access to the theater. We haven’t won anything.”
Centcom officials called in a cultural advisor to assess their efforts and get them on a more productive track. Today, the command’s digital engagement team leverages the power of social media to engage in a very different way with an ever-expanding audience.
“The tone has become much more measured,” Robinson said. “The idea is not to tell people what to do or to coach them, but to try to lead them to a better answer in a way that is not controversial.”
Rather than directly countering a negative or adversarial message, for example, a team member might respond: “‘That’s an interesting perspective, but how about this way of thinking about it?’ or ‘Thank you. I have never heard it said in those terms. In the U.S., we approach it from this direction,’” Robinson explained.
“Their mission became one of not giving into an argument, as opposed to winning an argument,” he said.
The team realized another thing: Bombarding their audience with Centcom announcements wasn’t gaining them readers.
“This is not a tool for flooding people with your message. That is the fastest way to get tuned out on social media,” Robinson said. “If you want to increase your fan base, you have to appeal to the interests of your audience and recognize that the heart of social media is being social.”
So instead of blasting out information press-release style, the team began engaging in conversations with their audience, he explained. They made it a strict policy always to respond to questions from their followers.
“With so many sites out there, when someone asks questions, nobody responds. So what’s the point?” Robinson said. “People ask questions because they want to talk to you, so the last thing you want to do is ignore them.
“We want to create venues that invite people to ask questions and talk to us,” he said. “And when they talk to us, we answer back.”
The digital engagement team also began posting items one wouldn’t typically expect to find on a military site. They linked to interesting articles or photos and occasionally shared fond memories of their personal experience in the Middle East.
“This is not about trying to establish U.S. culture in the Centcom theater,” Robinson said. “This is about establishing credibility and making a connection. This is about making a relationship, because the heart of communication is really relationships.”
Those relationships help to give Centcom a credible voice with an audience it might not otherwise have, he explained.
“The value of this for the command is that a certain point in time, when we have something that the command needs to communicate, we can do that across a large audience in seven different languages,” he said.
About once a week the digital engagement team posts information about a U.S. exercise, deployment or other Centcom-related activity in the region.
“You have to be careful. You can’t come at the same audience every day, or you will lose it,” Robinson said. “If every day you are publishing information about you -- U.S. Central Command and what the commander wants to say -- you lose your audience.”
One of the most effective approaches, Robinson said, is when the team forwards a link from another source, then asks readers to comment on it.
Centcom’s first experiment with that approach was in February, when a Yemeni-led operation with support from the United States seized an Iranian dhow that was smuggling weapons to insurgents in Yemen. The international media publicized the successful mission, spelling out what had been seized and pointing the finger squarely at Iran.
Rather than generating their own message, Centcom’s digital engagement team posted a link to one of those stories.
“What we did in the DET was take one particular story and amplify it across seven different audiences,” Robinson said. “We provided the story and asked our audiences, ‘Are you aware of this?’ ‘Have you seen this story?’”
The responses ran the gamut, from outright denial and charges of American propaganda in some corners to acknowledgment from others that the Iranians have been conducting similar activities for quite some time.
As the discussion continued, Centcom’s social media audience temporarily skyrocketed 400 percent, Robinson said.
“By honoring the culture first and then talking about what we wanted to talk about, the readers of our forums went like that,” he said, his hand gesturing skyward.
Centcom’s digital engagement team continues to use social media to promote a better understanding of events unfolding in the region, and Centcom’s role in addressing destabilizing activities there, he said.
The team successfully used social media to steer readers to a U.S. Naval Forces Central Command news release about an international countermine exercise last spring in the Persian Gulf, issued in part in response to the Iranian government’s attempts to discredit the mission, Robinson reported.
They also generated conversation and debate earlier this year by asking the audience’s views on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim that it’s acceptable for the Iranian military to “engineer” elections there.
“The responses were pretty varied,” Robinson said. “The real value for us was that viewership of the story made a big upward climb. Even if they weren’t commenting, they were reading the story. And that is the intent: Let’s make people aware.”