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Pentagon Social Media Secrets Revealed

(Original Image: The Pentagon, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) David B. Gleason)

Secrets and the Pentagon go hand in hand, right? So when the Pentagon decided to host an event for Social Media Week at the fabled five-walled Department of Defense headquarters called “Military & Government Use of Social Media: What Works,” we were doubtful about what secrets or insights on social media might be shared. Instead, we found that the government’s approach to social media is done with a mix of dedication, training and military precision.

To show that the government is very focused on its social media missions, it gathered three military leaders and two federal agency representatives who provided their insights and experience with working under strict guidelines, regulations and policies to spread the missions of government.

Originally published on GovWin

Winning the Social Media War

The government may not currently be known for their excellence in social media successes, but they are in fact on front lines of governmental-wide communications change and yet
still adhering to federal regulations. Staff Sergeant Dale Sweetnam, Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the U.S. Army’s (@usarmy) online and Social Media Division works with a team of five people who have yielded remarkable results since March 2010: Twitter followers grew from 1,000 to 120,000 today; well over 1 million Likes on Facebook; and their first public social media guide.

Lt. Connie Braesch, Coast Guard Public Affairs (@uscg), stated that they (a team of two, including herself) began with no oversight, worked nights and weekends, and organically built trust and credibility by reaching people on their turf. Similarly, Chris Servello, Director of Social Media and Navy Public Affairs Officer, stated that they focused their efforts on original content to build a following.

The military is not the only aspect of the government that is pushing for change and increasing the use of digital communication, in fact the General Services Administration (GSA) manages a portal and plethora of content open freely to the public on howto.gov. For those unfamiliar with howto.gov it is home to many resources, including a breakdown of many social media sites and types, and how the government can and has used them. For government contractors who also have to follow in the footsteps of their government customers, it’s an ideal place to gain a best practice approach.

Military and Government Misconceptions in Social Media

If you work for a government agency or represent a section of the military the following norms occur: You must have everything reviewed, agency directors and generals should never tweet, your organization should spend a lot of money on campaigns and ads, and you should under no circumstance have a personality. Based on common questions received by the panelists these misconceptions are what citizens feel are often associated with the government in social spaces, but the for the most part were proved otherwise.

For example, Bob Carey, the Director of Federal Voting Assistance Programs (FVAP), personally uses twitter as noted by his Twitter username (@FVAP_Director). Further, Carey stated that when it comes to getting approval on messaging forgiveness is easier than permission. Sweetnam also stated that the U.S. Army’s social media team had a great amount of freedom, and because they were properly trained they are able to retain their personality.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s policy however made the clearest point: “New tools, same rules,” said Braesch. Given that her team of Coast Guardsmen already operate under strict military rules, the service provided a direct link to the stories of Coast Guardsman and the Coast Guard’s efforts in almost all situations without prior approval.

Planning and Strategy

Telling the story of the enlisted from around the world is no easy task, and neither is reporting on breaking events when the Coast Guard makes a large drug bust. To utilize social media each panelist stated that they use an editorial calendar, but also allow wiggle room for breaking news. In some instances they schedule with other divisions or departments when content will be released so it can be shared, or as Servello stated they will generate a large portion of the content themselves.

Servello also stated that they prefer Navy sailors to personally tell their stories so that they can be shared, and that eventually “nerdy social media teams” can be dissolved. So how do agencies and the military create a strategy to share their stories through social media? By having an archive for accounts, using an approved tool like HootSuite to assign tasks, and have an exit strategy going in.

Because the nature of social media is to be social, engaged people like to know the faces behind accounts and brands. In some cases this means that an individual can build an audience to the likeness of the brand, but unless it is an official account there is no reason to state it is owned by the organization. For that reason the panelists stated having an exit strategy will reduce any issues with employee turnover, and provides another reason on why hiring the best of the best will just give followers and fans another personality to connect with.

Organizational Buy In

Businesses could learn a great deal from the social media processes put in place by agencies and military divisions as it is quite simple. Once internal approval is granted all they need is to obtain the government approved terms of service (located on apps.gov in most cases or howto.gov resources).

Related: Collection of military and agency guidelines and policies for social media and digital content.


Elliot Volkman holds a Masters in digital communications and is the Community Manager of GovWin from Deltek, the network that helps government contractors win new business every day. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @thejournalizer.

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