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‘New Media’ Program Seeks Opportunities in 24/7 Global Networks

By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2007 – As evolving technology enables new links among people and speeds the flow of information around the globe, communications organizations must adapt to those changes to remain relevant and valuable to their core audiences, a Pentagon official said last week.

This shift toward global networking, customized information feeds and a 24/7 news cycle is occurring at a time when the U.S. military is facing increased rates of deployment and intense operational challenges, Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison, said during a June 13 interview.

“Our audience is moving worldwide, and frequently,” Barber said. “To keep pace in its mission to inform and educate, the Department of Defense needs to regularly reevaluate how it conveys information to the military, the American public and the rest of the world.”

As a means of extracting the benefits of the communications evolution, Barber oversaw the creation of the department’s New Media directorate.

“New technology gives us the capability to reach the soldier no matter where they’re deployed,” she explained. “New Media was developed several months ago because we realized that technology is changing so quickly that it offered us new advancements and new tools to reach our audiences, and we needed to find ways to incorporate that into our job.”

Since its launch in October, the New Media office has worked to develop personal relationships with military “bloggers” and online journalists, improve and expand the department’s Web presence and usability, embrace content-sharing sites such as YouTube and MySpace, and make communications products available on devices like cell phones, iPods and MP3 players.

The office came about as part of a wider “public affairs transformation” being pushed by the department’s leadership to make the military’s primary public face more forward-leaning in its approach to disseminating information.

Barber characterized the global communications situation as moving quickly toward a point where media consumers will have so many choices and such pervasive news feeds that they will both seek and be able to personalize their interaction with information.

“Everybody wants their news and information in a customized format,” she said.

But with research showing consumption patterns all over the map, she noted, “You can’t embrace new media and divorce yourself from old media, or from the former ways of communicating.”

Rather than an abrupt shift in how the military does business, Barber described the New Media program as a complement to the department’s traditional public affairs outreach through television, radio and print channels.

Furthermore, blindly embracing every new technology is not the right path to take for an organization like the Defense Department, Barber said. She advocated an approach of research, trial and evaluation.

“It’s an ever-evolving process. … Our users are going to be our best critics,” she noted.

“It’s not so much right now knowing exactly what kind of product to create; it’s putting the product that we have out there and starting to monitor it, and measure it, and research our audience, saying, ‘Is this relevant? Is this useful? Is this moving the needle?’” Barber explained.

Part of the challenge, Barber said, is the vast range of audiences, locations and functions the Defense Department serves. The same basic communications mechanisms used to communicate with troops about their pay are also used to inform the media of briefing opportunities and the public about health concerns.

Given the scope of the effort, the department must be especially mindful of its audiences’ priorities to make sure it is addressing them in the best way possible, Barber said.

“We have to be beyond smart when it comes to understanding how our customer needs to use our Web site, and what products they need, and the ways in which they need it,” she explained.

That approach has guided how the department moved into engaging bloggers and online journalists. A centerpiece of the office’s work, the “Bloggers’ Roundtable” program -- in which citizen journalists are put into discussions with senior military and political leaders around the world -- was founded on the creation of individual relationships between the department and members of the online community.

“Relationships still matter, and it’s one of the greatest challenges in this new media world -- when everything can be virtual – (that) if you’re not continuing relationships with your customer, you’re going to miss the boat,” Barber explained.

One of the chief tasks before the New Media team is discovering the best way to utilize technology to forge individual relationships between the department’s wealth of information and each member of its diverse audience, Barber said.

The key is to design the department’s Web presence to allow for a personalized experience, she observed.

“What you’ll see in the future for us is that when I log on to DoD.mil it will look very different than when (somebody else) logs on to DoD.mil, because you’re going to care about (different) things if you’re in the Army or you’re in the Navy. You’re going to care about things today that as a government employee aren’t important to me. In addition, you’re going to care about something six months from now when you’re deployed in Iraq,” Barber said.

“People probably get tired of hearing me talk about how you’ve got to customize, but I think that’s what we see happening and where we’re heading with our Web enterprise,” she noted. “Military life changes constantly.”

An interim step, and a tenet of new media management, is the integration of several of the department’s communications programs to make information accessible to the troops however and whenever they choose to receive it, Barber said.

She gave the example of content sharing and collective distribution channels among the Pentagon Channel internal military television network, the department’s primary Web site (DefenseLink.mil), and the New Media office’s own internally produced content.

Each piece of content points to the others, Barber explained. For instance, a Pentagon Channel program might be available through DefenseLink, a New Media roundtable would be available as a podcast through the Pentagon Channel’s Web site, or footage of the secretary of defense might be available as a video clip able to be dropped onto a public Web site through the office’s DoDvClips.mil site, a military-specific file-sharing site.

“It’s like taking three strands and braiding (them),” Barber said. “But in a year from now, it had better look like taking three ingredients and putting them into a bowl and mixing them so that you can’t tell the difference. That’s where we’ve got to go.”

To fully embrace the new media mindset, the department needs to overcome individual offices’ sense of ownership and the general habit of stove-piping information, Barber said.

“We don’t think about the Pentagon Channel, we don’t think about the Web site, we don’t think about New Media. We think about our communication enterprise,” she noted. “So we’ve done great, our team has done great, but we are just scratching the surface of what real integration looks like.”

Feedback on the new media program has been extremely positive, Barber said. In many cases, she noted, the fact that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has taken the lead on delving into new technologies has inspired its subordinate commands to make their own ventures into new media.

She gave the example of Multinational Force Iraq moving to post its own videos onto YouTube.com.

The sheer number of blogs and Web sites, and the viral spread of information on the Internet, makes gathering specific measures of effectiveness difficult, Barber said, but she gains confidence from subjective measures like MNF-I also constructing a YouTube page, or other federal government agencies inquiring about how to approach new media on their end.

“The real metric for us is we started a trend for the entire Department of Defense that has empowered other people to do it,” she said. “Those are the types of metrics (we use), even though they’re not quantitative. They’re qualitative in that we understand that things are changing, and people want to know more, and the want to follow the lead.”

The fact that technology keeps evolving means the department can never become complacent in its operations without risking irrelevancy, Barber said. Still, she reiterated the need for discipline in leaping into new avenues of communication.

Using the example of cell phones and short message services, Barber explained research shows they are the primary means of receiving information for many people in the world, but that finding doesn’t necessarily imply the Defense Department should jump full-force into that technology.

“You know my philosophy: just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” she said. “But I don’t know the answer to that question, because it continues to evolve and we have to keep looking at our audience and saying, ‘Where are they? Where are they today and what tools are they using?’”

Barber expressed confidence, however, in the department’s posturing via new media advances and its readiness to adapt as necessary to continue best serving its primary audiences.

“I think the Internet is just beginning. The blogger technology in the Internet platform is really just a starting place for us. So three years from now, what we’re calling ‘new media’ today, we won’t even be doing,” she said.

“It’s hard to know what the future is, but what I’m proud about (is) our New Media team, the Department of Defense, is structured and ready and agile to embrace the new technology as it happens.”

(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)

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Allison Barber


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