Why Should Military Leaders Use Social Media?

In my recent article on the lessons from employing social media in the military, I described our lessons from employing social media in a single combat brigade within the Australian Army. Collectively we learned many lessons over a year of implementing this enhanced approach to communicating with a range of different audiences.

But how might this approach within a single brigade ‘scale up’?  That is, how can military leaders institutionalise their use of social media for the variety of ‘raise, train, sustain’ functions that are executed on a daily basis?  This is not to say that military organisations don’t have a social media presence; they do.  In the Australian context, the Army Facebook page has a following nearly ten times the size of the regular Army.  The Twitter feed, while having a smaller presence, at least has established a foothold for the Army in the Twittersphere.

But presence is not the same as an institution fully exploiting the potential of social media.  It is therefore worth examining the opportunities of organisational adoption of social media, and the areas where it is most likely to have a good return on the time and people invested in generating social media product, presence, and discourse. And, if military institutions are to fully realise the potential of social media, it will need all leaders from top to bottom of the Services to embrace and advocate its use.  Therefore, below are seven reasons why military leaders should embrace and advocate the institutional adoption of social media.

Reason 1. Social media is a great way to understand, connect and interact with a global community of military professionals, many of whom are eager to engage in professional discourse and debate. Unlike email and journals, social media is open to a global audience at all times, and access is open to all.  It permits leaders to gain an understanding of topical issues and challenges as a tripwire to great web content. It also permits leaders to understand the breadth of views and opinions among military professionals and to engage in debate. Initiatives such as @DEFConference have brought together young professional military personnel. It has spawned websites and social media feeds that have enhance the breadth, and further democratised, professional military discourse.

Reason 2.  Social media is a terrific way to smash through the generational strata and for leaders to engage all of their workforce. It is one means that Generation X leaders can engage, interact with and understand their Generation Y work forces, which are now the vast majority of military organisations. As I have written previously, I don’t think we Generation Xers can fully appreciate how to best lead Generation Y service personnel without understanding social media. Persisting only with older forms of communication without embracing new and relevant means is like refusing to use telephones a century ago.  

Reason 3.  Social media is another means to foster and improve transparency in military organisations. Both transparency and auditability are core responsibilities of military organisations in democratic nations. Cleverly employed, and maintaining operational security constraints, it provides timely insights into the daily workings of military organisations or a broad distribution of key initiatives (the tweeting of the @AustralianArmy White Ribbon accreditation ceremony by Chief of Army @LTGEN_Campbell is one example of this). Social media should also be used as a part of a broader public affairs and strategic communications approach, and complement existing public affairs mechanisms.

Reason 4.  Social media provides an additional layer of understanding for military families and enhances their capacity to visualise the challenges and achievements of their relatives. In the case of the 1st Brigade, our brigade Facebook page has been very popular with families. Providing information on the activities of service members to their wider families assists in family comprehension of the contribution of their family members’ service and does so in an easily accessible and easily understood way. This is especially the case for deployed family members but is relevant for all service personnel regardless of their employment location.

Reason 5. Social media adds to the range of tools for military leaders to recognise achievement by their people. Most military organisations have multiple ways to acknowledge achievement, courage, and service through medals, ribbons, commendations, etc. However, social media offers the capacity to publicise these traditional achievement recognition approaches. It also can be employed as an additional way to acknowledge achievement through rapid posts that acknowledge individuals and groups.

Reason 6.  Social media might be better employed for rapidly sharing lessons.  The Internet was a critical enabler for sharing operational lessons from both Iraq and Afghanistan and for fostering debate on the range of responses available during particularly challenging periods of those campaigns. Social media played a role in this sharing of lessons, but could potentially offer a larger contribution if senior leaders openly use and advocate its use in this way. Interestingly, the potential expansion of character limits for Twitter (from 140 up to 10000 characters while remaining what Jack Dorsey calls its live conversational nature) opens new possibilities in this area.  

Reason 7. Finally, social media holds potential to be used as an integral part in new digital-age education, training, and doctrine systems. Several academics have examined the application of social media in education and training. There is still some way to go in examining both the opportunities and challenges of social media in these areas. However it is clear that digital age training, education, and doctrine development – which uses a mix of residential and non-residential approaches – must exploit the most effective means of communication available. Social media therefore must be part of this ‘golf bag’ of available approaches for interaction and debate in any evolution of how the military trains and educates its people and develops its doctrine. This is a topic I will return to in a subsequent article.

Some have found the challenges of social media, particularly security concerns or misunderstanding its value, difficult to surmount or to be sufficient cause to lag behind in adopting its use. This is not to say that there are not some negative aspects; there are (as explained here and here).  But for military organisations, social media must now move beyond the discretionary and into the realm of business as usual. In the absence of face to face interaction, social media is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to pass information, broadly convey intent, and for all of us to communicate, interact and foster professional sharing and discourse.

Brigadier Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.

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