Exercise Hamel 2016: A Case Study in the Military Use of Social Media

In July, the Australian Army concluded its annual Exercise Hamel in South Australia.  A large-scale Army exercise that incorporates land, air, info-war and cyber activity, it is an exercise that is designed to evaluate the Army’s high readiness forces. The exercise exposes forces to an escalating series of scenarios encompassing stability operations, non-combatant evacuation and high-level joint warfighting. Importantly, it offers the opportunity to demonstrate to the Australian people, in an open and transparent way, that the resources invested in the Australian Army have been well spent and provide an excellent return on such investment.

Australian Army Photo

This article describes how a multi-disciplinary team from the Australian Army integrated a communications plan into the design and execution of Exercise Hamel in 2016. We examine issues such as planning for public affairs and social media to be supporting elements of the exercise; workforce design; execution of a social media campaign, including tracking and adaptation; and finally, the results. Notably, this article also makes a contribution to emerging research regarding the role of new and social media as part of an integrated military public affairs strategy.     

Contributing to Army’s Collective Knowledge

While the role of social media in military public affairs has been the subject of scholarship in the United States for some time, this emerging area of research is only now receiving attention in Australia.

In 2011, Colonel Thomas D. Mayfield III, then Chief of Plans Division (G3), Headquarters U.S. Army Europe, warned that commanders who ignored the growing importance and disruptive influence of social media did so at their peril: “There are already examples of militaries that have ignored the realities [of social media] and have suffered,” he wrote. “The effective use of social media may have the potential to help the Armed Forces better understand the environment in which it operates. Social media may allow more agile use of information in support of operations.”[1]

One year later, in 2012, Kenneth Hacker examined shifts in U.S. Army communications policy that had become necessary, given the growth of social media as a strategic communications tool.[2] While 'old’ media had accommodated conventional practices of information control and dissemination, Hacker highlighted the importance of new policies to manage the innate complexity of new media.

Exercise Hamel 2016 provided an opportunity to both apply and evaluate social media usage within the context of a major exercise conducted by the Australian Army, in collaboration with international partners. While the case for using social media in an Australian military context has been argued previously, this article turns its attention to the outcomes of its application during Exercise Hamel 2016 with a view to furthering the Australian Army’s collective knowledge and contributing to ongoing research and debate.[3]   

Planning

The integration of social media elements into the planning of Exercise Hamel at an early stage was important. This approach, rather than a last minute ‘bolt on,’ allowed for careful construction of messaging themes and the design of the type of products that might be produced. Such themes focused on transparent and open coverage, showing off as much of the Australian Army’s capabilities as possible without compromising security, and portraying the Army as a professional, combined arms force.

Much of this planning was done top-down. That is, Army Headquarters was engaged early to ensure the exercise’s strategic communications aligned with the Australian Army’s communications themes and priorities. The overall branding was to have a single focus: brand “Army.” This ensured simplicity in building products and was also designed to reduce confusion among non-military audiences: a potential outcome if branding attempted to represent multiple units and formations.

Additionally, there was a focus on developing media relationships prior to the exercise. While a visit by the nationally broadcast morning show, Today, was the most well-known, local and state media engagement conducted prior to the exercise enabled ongoing interest locally, which then generated interested on a national (and international) level through social media shares. The Army was then also able to reach audiences it might not ordinarily reach through ongoing radio interviews with frequent updates regarding the progress of the exercise.  

People

Another important aspect was designing the right organisational structure including the right team members and skillsets to support the exercise.  A multi-disciplinary team was built, led by a general service officer from a non-public affairs background—Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Pierpoint—whose strength lay in an ability to leverage skillsets in pursuit of a targeted and deliberate communications strategy. This ensured the team was led by someone who both understood the organisation and its branding, and had a disciplined methodology for the incorporation of social media throughout the exercise.

Australian Army medical officer Major Kelly Dunne is interviewed for the Australian Army podcast during Exercise Hamel 2016. (Grounded Curiosity)

The multi-disciplinary team consisted primarily of public affairs officers from the regular Army and the Army Reserve. These were drawn from across Australia, and possessed—in aggregate—a broad range of domestic and international experience. Another element of the team were photographers and videographers drawn from the 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit, along with a military reporter from Army News. These specialists were critical in gathering high quality material that could be used across multiple platforms.  

A further element was a multimedia team from the Army Learning Production Centre. While initially employed to produce material such as exercise news reports, this team was able to rapidly produce high-quality video material such as teasers and short movies.  One example was the Battle for Iron Knob short movie, which has to date received in excess of 127,000 views via social media. Finally, we also had the services of an experienced radio journalist who established the Army’s first podcast, which is focused on training and education.

Execution of the Social Media Campaign

Before the exercise commenced, the social media campaign was already underway; a teaser trailer was released that sought to draw in audiences. The team responsible for public affairs and social media worked directly for the Exercise Director—this ensured greater agility and responsiveness. Daily meetings were held with the team to track current initiatives, confirm media embed activity, plan future social media activity and undertake analysis of social media statistics for the exercise.

While planning and thought went into the Exercise Hamel social media campaign, its design did not remain static. Several lessons were learnt early on, and the team adapted accordingly.

The first key adaptation was closer integration between public affairs social media and outputs from Army Learning Production Centre multimedia team. While principally deployed to produce exercise product, their priorities were adapted early on to focus more on social media product. As a result, more short videos on various aspects of the exercise could be produced, which gave audiences insight into the running and execution of such a large-scale activity.

The second adaptation to the plan was the development of the podcast. This was largely serendipitous. The opportunity to produce this output emerged when an Army Reserve public affairs officer asked whether her extensive radio journalism experience could be employed. The result was the TRADOC podcast, the first podcast of its kind in the Australian Army, with an initial focus on members discussing Exercise Hamel. The development and role of the podcast is discussed further below.

The final adaptation was a one-off campaign to persuade a major television personality to visit the exercise. An initial invitation to major television networks and programs was posted on Twitter, with little to no response. Following a Sunday afternoon ‘spit-balling’ activity, it was decided to leverage social media to invite Karl Stefanovic from The Today Show to visit the exercise. A #WeWantKarl hashtag was employed and it was arranged for multiple Army Twitter users to participate. Within 12 hours, Karl Stefanovic had accepted and within 72 hours he was on the ground filming an entertaining, but highly positive, story about the exercise and the Army.

Today co-host Karl Stefanovic interviews Corporal Nicholas Tison during his visit to Exercise Hamel 2016. (1st Brigade, Australian Army)

The Australian Army Training and Doctrine Podcast

While unanticipated, the Australian Army’s first podcast was grounded in an established framework of audio broadcasting that has introduced audiences to a new medium that is both disruptive yet familiar.

As previously described, audio podcasts enable a level of intimacy with audiences that is not only conducive to learning, but facilitates heightened engagement.[4] The Australian Army Training and Doctrine Podcast achieved this by leveraging social media to engage audiences in feedback and conversation; adopting an immersive journalistic methodology; choosing interviewees and subject matter of immediate interest to its target audience and setting its sights high in terms of broadcast quality and production standards.

The Australian Army’s social media platforms were leveraged from the start to not only launch the series, but also engage audiences in conversation regarding the content presented. The interview style was both ethnographic and educational: seeking to immerse listeners in the experiences of interviewees and exploring learning points from a personal, insider’s perspective. This drew on the interviewer’s experiences as an ethnographic journalist within a military context; it also met the primary objective of the series—to engage audiences who were seeking extension and depth from a perspective that they found both accessible and immersive.[5-7]         

The Results 

The analytics for social media on Exercise Hamel 2016 are, in themselves, a good news story. The organic reach (the rate of individuals receiving the content) for Army’s Facebook site peaked at 544,960.  Video content posted during this period was viewed 970,202 times, with a peak of 127,493 views on a single day.

The new TRADOC podcast was downloaded or played 5206 times across 8 Episodes –– an average 650 listeners per episode. The Army’s YouTube channel saw a 34.23% increase in total views over the previous 25-day period and 4.14% increase in total minutes viewed compared to the previous 25-day period.

Lessons

What can the Army learn from its use of social media on Exercise Hamel 2016 for use on future exercises, and for its application of social media across the institution? There are several lessons.

First, Exercise Hamel 2016 demonstrated that the broader Australian community is interested in the activities of the Army and the wider Australian Defence Force. Leveraging social media during the exercise provided the public with a window on Army activities that had not been visible or accessible before. It provided a view of the exercise almost in real-time, and allowed the Army to showcase its people and capabilities in a way that complemented traditional media.

Second, the design of a communications plan at the commencement of exercise planning, which incorporated nested social media, proved to be highly beneficial during the exercise. Ensuring that this planning was integrated within the larger exercise design and planning effort allowed for early planning for media activities, and construction of the right team to provide support to social media outputs. At the same time, the exercise demonstrated that social media must be employed in concert with other media. Allowing embedded media to be part of Exercise Hamel was another positive move.

Third, the multi-disciplinary team approach allowed for the production of a variety of products to tight deadlines. It also enabled a team with a wide variety of skillsets to come up with different ideas, which they could then innovate and adapt throughout the exercise.

Fourth, the approach taken on Exercise Hamel this year can be viewed as the baseline for future exercises. Still, it is an approach that can also be reviewed and adapted as the Army learns more about strategic communication and social media.  

Finally, the inventiveness and enthusiasm of Army’s public affairs and multi-media personnel proved to be a great asset. With early planning and disciplined execution, the team was able to develop targeted product and revise its approach as demands changed during the exercise. Enabling these personnel to use their imagination within the social media environment has the potential to deliver further benefits for the Army.

Future Application

Noting the lessons from Exercise Hamel 16, how might these lessons be applied more broadly in the Army and in other military organisations?

The approach taken on Exercise Hamel this year demonstrates that with only a modest investment in personnel, military organisations can achieve a large return on investment. Coupled with a well-considered strategic communications plan, military organisations might apply a similar model to exercises but also to day-to-day training and international engagement activities.

Exercise Hamel also demonstrated the need to retain a well-trained public affairs capacity in military organisations. Their utility extends beyond responsive public affairs in the event of incidents or issue of press releases. Their capacity to craft high quality social media campaigns aligned with institutional branding and messaging is a powerful capability in military organisations that must be able to operate in an era of transparency and a pervasive media environment.

Finally, the planning for strategic communications and media engagement (including social media) must be an integral part of all military planning activities. Integrating this at the commencement of planning allows not only for effective strategic messaging. It also permits military organisations to better anticipate and plan for all types of media engagement (negative and positive) and ensure leaders at all levels are able operate in this environment.

Conclusion

As a recent article notes, the Australian Army invests significant resources in the planning, execution and support of Exercise Hamel. It hones the force’s capabilities and provides a first-rate opportunity for the Army to employ social media to showcase its people and capabilities. The lessons explored here provide a sound foundation for future employment of social media by the Australian Defence Force and other military organisations.


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.

Mick Cook is an officer in the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery and hosts The Dead Prussian podcast. He is passionate about encouraging critical thought on war amongst military professionals and policy makers. He is the Director of Communications and Marketing for DEF Australia.

Felicity Hamblin is an officer in the Australian Army Public Relations Service and manages the social media presence and community relationships within the 1st Brigade. She is passionate about media engagement and sharing the many stories of the hard-working soldiers in the Brigade, and encouraging innovation as part of DEF Australia.

Sharon Mascall-Dare is a Military Public Affairs Officer serving in the Australian Army Reserve. An award-winning BBC radio producer, Sharon is co-producer of the Army's inaugural Training and Doctrine Podcast, launched during Exercise Hamel 2016. In her civilian life she is Adjunct Associate Professor of journalism at the University of Canberra and serves on the South Australian Government's Veterans Advisory Council.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Defence Force.


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Header Image: Exercise Hamel is an Australian Army exercise designed to evaluate the war fighting skills of a Brigade. (Australian Army Photo)


Notes:

[1] Mayfield, A., “What is social media”, Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 60, 1st Quarter 2011, National Defence University Press, available at: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/jfq/mayfield_strat_for_soc_media.pdf [accessed 25 Aug 2016]

[2] Hacker, K., "Social Media and New Military Public Affairs Policies." Citizen 2.0: Public and Governmental Interaction through Web 2.0 Technologies, IGI Global, 2012.

[3] Ryan, M., and Thompson, M., “Social Media in the Military: Opportunities, Perils and a Safe Middle Path,” Grounded Curiosity, 21 Aug 2016, available at: http://groundedcuriosity.com/social-media-in-the-military-opportunities-perils-and-a-safe-middle-path/#sthash.XXT5QhTy.dpuf [accessed 26 Aug 2016]

[4] Mascall-Dare, S. and Cook, M., “Tune in, Listen up and Learn,” Grounded Curiosity, 11 Aug 2016, available at: http://groundedcuriosity.com/tune-in-listen-up-and-learn/ [accessed 26 Aug 2016]

[5] While well-known in the U.S., “ethnographic journalism” remains largely unknown as a discrete journalistic methodology in Australia. It is characterized by an immersive approach, where the reporter seeks to tell a story from an insider’s or community’s perspective. For a definition see Cramer, J., and McDevitt, M., ‘Ethnographic Journalism’, in: Iorio S. H., (ed.), Taking it to the Streets: Qualitative Research in Journalism, (Mahwah: LEA, 2004).

[6] Mascall-Dare, S., “Getting the story and getting your boots dirty: the case for ethnographic journalism in Anzac day coverage,” in Starck, N. (ed.), Legacies of War, Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne, 2012, available at: http://search.ror.unisa.edu.au/media/researcharchive/open/9915909779401831/53108566630001831 [accessed 26 Aug 2016]   

[7] Mascall-Dare, S., “Journalists and war commemoration: outlining alternative practices”, in West, B., (ed.), Commemorative Alternatives, Routledge, New York, 2016.