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Military and Government Facebook Pages: Being there is not enough

Today a growing number of military units and government organizations have an official presence in social media and especially on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that most organizations just seem to think that being there is good enough. Their fan pages are nothing more than a place to push the same old news releases and self congratulatory comments they shill in their other outlets.

A perusal of many major organizational pages shows that administrators don’t seem to have an idea how to truly build a community and leverage the power of social media and its ability to engage the public in ways unimaginable through traditional means. It truly seems that most military organizations are just happy to have finally built a page and that is the extent of the progress.

The last year has seen an explosion of organizations building outposts in the social media world and specifically a wave of Facebook fan pages. Some are having a measure of success in a large number of friends and followers who are linking to the pages.

A recent top 10 list by Federal Computer Week (http://bit.ly/2IbbUY) showed that the Marines come in number 2 with 83,000 fans and our Army page has over 49,000 fans. But with well over 300 million users on Facebook those numbers are quickly dwarfed as a measure of success. Even more so when you consider that the Chocolate Chip Cookies fan page weighs in with 1.46 million fans. (Dr. Mark Drapeau points out the fallacy of numbers of fans as a measure of success much better than I could in his excellent post http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/09/fallacious-celebrations-of-fac.html )

The entire US Army has well over 1 million members. Throw in another 6 million plus family members, civilian employees and retirees and it leads you to think that maybe we aren’t providing something they would find useful or we would have a whole lot more signed up.

What would make the pages more engaging? Here are a few suggestions and I will post more in the future:

1) Pictures, pictures, pictures:
A recent study showed that the most popular thing people do on social networking sites is look at pictures. Military and government fan pages should be loaded with pictures not just from the official outlets but we should encourage our fans to load their own and show off their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives for the world. It defies logic that the fan page for Multi-National Force-Iraq, the headquarters for well over 140,000 troops in combat, only has 12 photos posted. There are literally hundreds of photos being uploaded to official news channels weekly from theater, put the best on the fan pages. Same for videos.

You could fill dozens of albums with just photos of the incredible celebrities who take time to go and visit our troops all over the world. For example, Trace Adkins toured the combat zones just last year. By placing photos of his trip on the pages of the commands and tagging him in them you will link your site to his fan page with over 37,000 members. The power of social networking is…well…networking.

2) Engage not regurgitate:
Facebook is all about engaging and discussing. Just issuing the same old press releases and news articles about how great you are isn’t engaging. Its boring. The true measure of this is how much people comment on the articles when you hang them. The average article posted by Multi-National Corps-Iraq gets at most 7 comments. People are not reading these posts and if they are, they are not “engaged” by them.

You have to have a conversation. Why not invite General Odierno to post something on the wall himself one day and have him take questions from anyone who comments on the page? How about grabbing a young soldier from the field and have him post pictures and wall comments on his day on patrol? Ask your fans for questions and then have a panel of experts from around the Corps chime in and answer the ones that relate to their area of expertise? Engage your fans and give them a reason to come to the page regularly and see what is going on.

3) Speak like a human:
You can’t treat a social media environment like the staid world of AP Style Guide proper English news articles. Its not that kind of an environment and the people we want to reach out to aren’t interested in wonderful prose. Its a place where you can show your human side. One of my favorite regular sources of humor was the ongoing Chuck Norris facts postings in the form of sticky notes on bulletin boards all over the country. There is no reason MNF-I’s page shouldn’t have the top 100 Chuck Norris facts from soldiers in Iraq. Better yet–link it to the Chuck Norris Facts Group on Facebook which has over 150,000 members! Ask Chuck himself to post stuff on the page. He has visited Iraq more than once.

4) Have a plan:
Build a plan and put the right people in charge. Decide from the beginning what do you want to accomplish with your page and build the site to do just that. It doesn’t have to be the full time job of a staff member to manage it but by the same token it shouldn’t be your intern just cause “they are young and get this social media stuff”.

Consider that the fastest growing demographic on Facebook today is 35-54 year old’s and the number one users of social media today are mothers and you realize that just because its new doesn’t mean its the responsibility of a kid to run it. Are you sure you want the public face of your organization to be an intern?

With just a little bit of extra work organizations can start leveraging their Facebook efforts to truly build an engaged community that networks and shares the stories of our service members and their families to the whole world.

I am often reminded of my years in the 101st Airborne Division planning air assault operations. We would spend hours going over every detail of every chalk of aircraft and the precise order and rotation of helicopters. Staff members would be exhausted figuring out all of the intricacies of the flight plans. After seven years of planning those ops I would constantly remind my team members that the whole point of an air assault wasn’t getting there…but what happened when we arrived.

Its not good enough to get to the objective successfully then not know what the heck you are there for in the first place.

Epilogue: This post was originally published on my personal blog Armed and Curious at http://armedandcurious.blogspot.com/2009/09/military-facebook-pages-being-there-is.html on September 22nd and since then a number of military units have taken the advice. Multi-National Corps-Iraq has dramatically increased their pictures and have even been posting photos that troops submit of their mid-tour vacations. Their fan numbers have grown dramatically.

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Scott Burns

This is great advice for anyone trying to engage people through Facebook or other social media. I love the tangible and easy steps (e.g., adding pictures) to get things going better. I think it’s important to remember, that just being there is a good first step. It gets folks used to having less control over the dialogue so they realize that nothing bad will happen. However, now that so many agencies have been “present” in social media for a while, it’s time to step up and engage.

Matt Bado

Thanks for posting this great advice. There are some cultural hurdles that need to be addressed, especially within DOD. The same ways of doing business don’t translate well over to social interactive tools. There is a huge education aspect. That’s how we’re beginning to jump over the hurdles with ease at the Military Health System. We’re not quite there but its getting there.

Kevin Lanahan

I agree with your advice, but am concerned about the lack of accessibility in Facebook and other social media. How long before we get called on the carpet for using a non-508 application?

Frederick P. Wellman

@Kevin I spoke to my experts here at army.mil and our legal review says that we are not responsible for the 508 compliance of the social media sites we have an official presence on. It is similar to how the cable company isn’t responsible for individual stations not complying with 508. We are only users not owners.
@Matt and @Scott I am really glad you liked the post. I have been an evangelist for social media efforts for the Army for a little over two years now and I am truly loving the amount of effort that is out there but I have grown frustrated as it seems many units and organizations are just using it like a press release service and have no idea what they are doing in the space. It is actually a negative image they are building by not using social media outlets with the right ettiquette and appropriateness. Thus my theme…being there is not enough.

Meyer Moldeven



Here’s my candidate for a ‘government Facebook’ story that may be as timely these days as it was back in 1984 [the tumultuous post-Viet Nam years] when it was published by the Army Times. The article’s title is ‘Suicide Prevention is Everybody’s Business’ and a scan copy is in the Gutenberg Foundation archive at:


(The page that follows my article formally established the ‘Army Suicide Prevention Program.’)

My job, during VN, was senior civilian in the IG office at McClellan AFB, near Sacramento. The Sr Commander gave me the additional duty to represent him on the Sacramento County Mental Health Council and participate in the council’s planning to create a suicide prevention service for the county. The Commander emphasized his concern toward meeting the needs of military personnel under his command and transient (all services, active and retired). I was/am a layman; my duties in the IG included compliance with the USAF complaints program; hence my being selected.

When the suicide prevention service was established I took their ‘gatekeeper/hotline counselor’ training (primitive in those early years) and took my turn on the hotline. I offer here 3 representative examples of what incoming calls that I took were like. The names, appearance, and any other possible identification has been omitted or altered to ensure the callers’ privacy:

The narration reflects a tiny sample of the effects of stress that can surface in military life and is not intended to represent major emotional, behavioral, or physical indicators toward suicide ideation. My regular work shift at the SPS brought me as much of a military-civilian mix of callers as the other hotline workers, so I’ve seen both sides.

The contacts were all by telephone, and in two of the three cases led to a number of quick follow-on calls to several parties on and off the base. Each caller had the potential for violence, either to self or another. If intervention, at a high point in the interaction failed, the situation might well have deteriorated, possibly with tragic results.


While on the job in the McClellan IG office, a phone call came in from the SPS Director who told me he needed my help right then. A young Army draftee was on the SPS hotline and he was threatening to commit suicide. He was supposed to be on his way to Viet Nam but he had gone AWOL instead. He was far from home and felt lost and confused. He said he had one question before deciding whether to kill himself: ‘What’ll they do to me if I turn myself in?’ He wouldn’t identify himself or say where he was.

The SPS Director said that he didn’t have the answer. He told the soldier he had a contact at a nearby military base that could check it out. Holding him on one line he called me on another and gave me the facts. I immediately called the Staff Judge Advocate – who was part of my on-base network – and had him phone the SPS Director immediately to review the ramifications of military justice as it might apply. The SPS Director passed the information to the soldier and then talked to him for about an hour. The guidance provided by the Staff Judge Advocate gave the soldier options that might reduce potential charges he faced, not ruling out desertion. We never found out what the soldier decided; he never called back.

This call, and how it was handled, demonstrated teamwork between a community suicide prevention resource and military and civil service administrators on a military base. Comparable groundbreaking was going on in other military-civilian communities and contexts.


Family Problem

The Base Chaplain called me at home late one Sunday night and said he’d had a phone call from a hotline worker at the community SPS. The SPS worker had asked for his help in a call that had come in from an airman’s wife. She had phoned the SPS from her home off base and threatened to kill her husband and then commit suicide.

The caller to the SPS had impulsively terminated the call to the SPS after a few minutes, but in her responses to questions at the outset of the interview, had given her phone number to the crisis worker. After she hung up, the crisis worker judged the woman was more than moderately lethal, and also that she might listen to a military Chaplain. That brought on the call to the Base Chaplain.

After getting the specifics from the crisis worker, the Chaplain phoned the woman and talked to her for about 10 minutes before she hung up on him too. His conclusion, also, was that she was highly lethal for both homicide and suicide. He phoned the Base Security Police and then the Director of Personnel. The Chaplain was leaving that day for Viet Nam; the Director of Personnel suggested he call me.

The Chaplain asked me to follow up. I called the woman. The conversation was heavy, and lasted for more than 2 hours. The problem was in marital relations, finances, and spouse abuse. We finally got around to talking about on-base resources that might ease the load she was carrying: the Staff Judge Advocate, Family Services and Medics. Just listening, and then talking about potential on-base resources helped to lower the pressure. She finally agreed to wait until morning, now only a couple of hours distant, so that the resources we had discussed could be consulted.

First thing that morning, I got the base Family Services people into the act. They moved in fast, took control, got the airman’s wife around to talk to the right people, and did a lot themselves. I checked back later. Family Services had her under their wing. She wasn’t talking about murder-suicide any more. It was going to be one day at a time for her for a while. She now had somewhere on-base where she felt she could turn, and people in whom she had some confidence.

Why hadn’t the woman tried Family Services on her own? I don’t know. She chose the civilian community’s suicide intervention resource. She had other options, and she might have tried them too. What’s my point? Another instance in which military and civilian resources collaborated and made the system work.


At about 11 PM one night, I was working my shift at the SPS hotline desk. A call came in from the switchboard supervisor at the city’s telephone company. The supervisor said she had a man on-line and he was in a fury. She couldn’t handle him. Would I take him? I told her to let me have him, and he was on.

It took a while to get him down to where he could speak coherently. He was an enlisted man in from Viet Nam, making his way to the East Coast. His problem wasn’t suicide, it was homicide. He was in a barroom, he said, drinking and minding his own business. Shortly before his call, another patron had ridiculed his uniform and his Service. He had a weapon in his bag and had an almost overwhelming urge to use it.

A stranger in town, passing through, he felt he’d better divert and talk to someone. Searching for some means to vent his rage other than assault, he had, on impulse, picked up the barroom phone and dialed the operator. He must have come down real heavy on her and her supervisor; he found himself of a sudden switched to a hotline worker at the local SPS.

We talked for more than three hours. At the outset he was openly hostile, demanded to know who I was, and how the hell I had been loaded on to him. When I told him, he said he didn’t know what ‘suicide prevention’ was about and wanted no part of it. But he didn’t hang up, and we never hung up on anyone.

In our give-and-take, when he realized he was talking to someone who had more than a passing knowledge of the military, who could respond in his jargon and relate to his lifestyle and to his feelings, his hostility eased off. Other feelings began to surface.

He admitted that he had been deeply shaken and enraged by his experiences during border crossings into Cambodia, and he still carried the same, almost overwhelming anger. Without my bringing it up, he confided that he’d had intense thoughts about self-injury, even suicide, and that the feelings had been strongest before taking off on missions. The rage, and the thoughts of suicide, were still with him and, looking back at them in calmer moments, he said that he was alarmed by their intensity. After a while, he admitted, reluctantly, that he might need help. He said he would think about seeking it out when he got to his permanent station.

At the close, he was much calmer. He phoned back a few hours later and told the hotline worker on duty that he was at the bus depot, and would soon leave for the east. He said to pass the word to me that he was OK.