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National Guard Embraces Social Media

By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Aug. 12, 2009 – Even in the 140-character brevity demanded of a “tweet,” the enthusiasm National Guardsmen have for communicating through Twitter software is evident.

“Just shot my first rounds from a M1A1 Main Battle Tank. Killed 3 of 4 targets. Best Tank on the planet!”

And it’s not just the rank-and-file who are communicating, although among Twitter’s millions of users -- the company won’t say exactly how many -- one stands out: He wears four stars and is responsible for policies, programs and plans affecting more than 450,000 National Guard members.

Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, may be a Twitter rarity -- follow him @ChiefNGB – but it’s not unique to find a leader of his stature at the cyberspace water cooler.

Even as debate over social media policy swirled in the Defense Department this summer, someone tapped out this tweet:

“Obviously we need to find the right balance between security and transparency. We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet.”

The author? Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- follow him @thejointstaff.

Healthy debate is going on about the balance between the need for operational, information and network security and transparency, but the National Guard embraced social media in November.

“The old way of communicating – internal communications or command information, external communications or media relations and community relations – [is] a 20th century model,” said Jack Harrison, the National Guard Bureau’s director of public affairs and strategic communication. “General McKinley is a believer in communication -- collaborate, coordinate, communicate -- and he is very much embracing social media.

“Our position on social media is that we ought to carefully learn these different methods of communicating,” Harrison continued, “keeping in mind our objective when we’re communicating, who our audience is, who we’re trying to talk to [and] follow [Defense Department] policy, which … is still being developed.”

Name a social media site and the National Guard is there.


Facebook: The National Guard page that started in January had 3,000 fans as of yesterday. Users who sign up get updates on their Facebook home page.


Twitter: @TheNatlGuard had gathered 1,489 followers through Aug. 7 since it started tweeting this spring. Followers had received 407 official tweets from the National Guard Bureau, most containing links to Guard news.

-- Flickr: The 2,216 photos posted on The National Guard page had been viewed 114,144 times through Aug. 7.

-- YouTube: The NationalGuard channel had been viewed more than 2,000 times through Aug. 7.

“I’ve seen people interact with the National Guard and the National Guard leadership … in a way that they’ve never been able to interact with the organization before,” said Rick Breitenfeldt, chief of the social media branch in the National Guard Bureau’s public affairs office. “If we’re not one of the voices out there, somebody’s going to be there for us telling our story in a way that is inaccurate or that is maybe not the whole story. The conversation is going to be held, and if we’re not involved in the conversation, we’re missing the point of social media. We have to be there, where the people are.”

In the months since the bureau started embracing social media, results have been immediate and measurable. First-time visits to http://www.ng.mil, the National Guard’s Web site, have doubled. Public affairs officers believe much of the increase is being driven by the Guard’s social media presence.

“That’s a huge increase … in a six-month period,” Harrison said. “That’s a quantifiable benefit. … We have a responsibility to the American people to communicate with them, and the more people who are coming to our public Web site, [the better].”

One of the significant costs of sharing the Guard story with Guard members has been reduced while the number of Guardsmen reached has increased and the frequency of contact between Guard leaders and members has improved, Harrison said.

This was accomplished by retiring the $550,000 per year, 60,000-copy print edition of “The On Guard,” the monthly official newspaper of the National Guard, and replacing it with a significantly less expensive e-mail subscription service that pushes out weekly updates and a quarterly e-magazine to 347,000 citizen-soldiers and -airmen.

The jury is still out on the Defense Department’s social media policy. “The debate is about operational security and balancing the vulnerabilities of an entire network for the largest government department in the United States, versus being open and transparent and inclusive,” Breitenfeldt said. “It’s about risk.”

Harrison said the Guard’s guidance on personal involvement in social media is clear: “It’s the same as our guidance would be for any sort of media activity that our Guardsmen involve themselves in,” he said. “We’re American citizens. We all have the right to speak and speak honestly. … As military members, we have a responsibility to be professional.”

Some wonder about a knowledge gap between people who have access to the Internet and those who don’t. A December 2008 Gallup poll found that fewer than half of Americans are frequent Internet users. But the end of the print edition of “The On Guard” was marked by deafening silence.

“Many people said when we made this change, ‘Wow, there’s going to be a lot of people who are angry or upset that they don’t have a piece of paper to look at every month,’” Harrison said. “I’ve not received one phone call, one e-mail, one letter. Nothing.”

When necessary, the GovDelivery Web-based software system helps the Guard contact its membership almost instantly, as happened after an Army National Guard laptop was stolen, potentially compromising 131,000 people’s personal data late last month.

“The speed at which we can communicate with Guard members is light-years ahead of where it was a year ago,” Harrison said.

But social media and electronic delivery are about more than reduced costs and increased contacts. The very nature of the interaction has changed. The defining characteristic of Web 2.0 is that it’s interactive.

“Web 2.0 is choosing the information that you want, when you want it, how you want to see it,” Breitenfeldt said. “We’re trying to be part of that environment. I don’t see us going back. The public is going to demand this type of transparency and this type of interactiveness. … Gone are the days where the public isn’t involved in the conversation.”

The Internet in general and social media in particular have removed a filter from between the public and public servants such as National Guard members.

Twenty years ago, an institution such as the Guard had to make a compelling case to get its story out to a limited range of traditional media operating within a much slower news cycle. The Guard had little or no control over the form a story took.

Today, the Guard and every other social institution in every sector can speak directly to the public – and the public can answer directly back.

“It used to be one-way,” Breitenfeldt said. “We would push out press releases. We would push out talking points. We would push out information. Now we are asking for input. It’s a two-way street [now].”

Twenty years ago, the traditional media told the public what news was. Now, the public decides what it considers news by interest measured in clicks, tweets, re-tweets, social bookmarks and the like.

“It’s a revolution and an evolution in communication – social media is just part of it,” Harrison said. “I don’t think it’s just a news revolution. … It’s just another step in the evolutionary process of communicating. We have a responsibility to the American people -- to the taxpayer who provides the funding for us to be the National Guard -- to let them know what we’re doing with their money. These tools … are helping us do exactly that.”

Some National Guard Bureau officials believe social media’s true worth will shine during the next major natural or manmade disaster.

“Social media has an immediate impact,” Breitenfeldt said. “North Dakota used Facebook and Twitter during the floods this spring, and they were putting out real-time, accurate, lifesaving information that was being picked up by not only the citizens, … but also by media outlets.”

Twitter was heavily used in 2008 during events such as August’s Hurricane Gustav, October’s earthquake in Pakistan and November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, according to Mashable.com, the social media guide.

“I really see the value in these sites for our first hurricane of the season, or for the first time the Guard gets called out [domestically] in a large number,” Breitenfeldt said. “People are going to be looking to … social media sites for immediate, accurate and reliable information. We’re in a position now where we can do that.”

(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau’s public affairs office.)

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Related Sites:
National Guard Bureau
Special Report: Social Media @ DoD

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