One year ago I was hugely fortunate to take command of the Australian Army’s 1st Brigade located in Darwin, at the top end of Australia. It is a formation with a proud history stretching back to its service throughout the Gallipoli campaign, both World Wars, Vietnam and in the contemporary struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As with all commanders, I had given much thought to the key areas of focus that would support us in building combined arms close combat competencies at various levels within the Brigade. There were several, but one particular area that interested me before I assumed command was how we might better use social media.
To my mind there were several imperatives to do so. First, what we do in a combat brigade is — to put it simply — really awesome. I wanted to communicate that to a wider community audience who may not have previously had military experience. Second, I wanted to be able to possess additional means to communicate with our families. Third, I wanted to be able to use it to support my professional military education programs in units across the Brigade. Finally, I wanted to understand a method of communicating that is used widely by our Generation Y soldiers — who now make up the majority of our people in the Brigade.
I therefore decided we would have a 1st Brigade Facebook page (for local and interstate families as well as the local community, and the broader Army and media) and I would have a personal commander’s Twitter feed, as a tripwire for our Facebook, but also to tweet interesting professional education articles and blog pieces. I also mandated that each of the seven battalions in the Brigade would be required to start and maintain a unit Facebook page and that each of my unit commanding officers would be required to maintain a Twitter account. But this use of social media needed to be a part of a broader brigade public affairs and engagement approach. We have found local media, local schools and community groups we support, as well as our members’ families and friends, have responded very positively to our approach.
I was very fortunate when I assumed command to have a new public affairs officer who thought about social media in many of the same ways that I did. She has been highly energetic in getting out and educating the units in the Brigade about social media and how it fits within a broader approach to engagement and public affairs.
We have a Brigade social media policy, and the public affairs officer also coordinates much of the content we produce across the Brigade. She also runs our Brigade Facebook page and its accompanying analytics. She has built outstanding relations with local TV and newspapers, and is a source of very effective advice on public affairs and the use of social media.
So after one year, what have we learned? The points below best encapsulate the lessons of a single Brigade’s social media journey — at least until now. I think we still have much to learn but hope these lessons might be useful to other military leaders as they embrace social media.
1. Pick a niche and stick with it. Social media is saturated with generalists and those who retweet anything. For us it was Brigade activities. This is my lane and not only is it something we know a lot about, it is unique and no one else can occupy our particular niche. Anything that is outside that, I stay away from, regardless of how personally I might be interested by a topic.
2. Focus on quality over quantity. High quality content is more important than your tweet count or number of impressions. And we have huge quantities of high quality content — our soldiers and what they do. It takes investment in unit photographers to get really good product but this is an investment with an excellent return.
3. Social media can no longer be seen as discretionary by military leaders. It underpins how much of our workforce interacts, and we must understand it. As I noted in a recent interview with Joe Byerly (@JByerly81) I don’t think us Gen Xers fully appreciate how to best lead our Gen Y soldiers without understanding social media. To understand social media, you need to participate. Social media is an important tool but is just one of the many elements that must be part of an integrated whole in contemporary leadership.
4. Public affairs officers are no longer a clearing house. Indeed I would propose that the old model is dead. It is a command responsibility. But public affairs officers have a vital role to play in advising best practice, communication skills and effective use of all media. Commanders often have many years or even decades invested in their institutions. They possess a superior ability to describe what is good about their organisations in social media. And I was just dumb lucky that the Australian Army provided our Brigade with the best one we have.
5. The use of social media needs to be a part of a broader public affairs and engagement approach. In our Brigade we have a rule of ‘three pics, three paragraphs’ for any event; this product can then be harvested for use on Twitter, Facebook, the Army Facebook page (which drastically increases reach) and the Army Newspaper. I also have a rule whereby a soldier in the brigade who gets their picture in the news for something positive gets a day off.
6. It is about engagement. We in the military must engage with different audiences. Using Facebook or Twitter allows interaction with people and interest groups, and permits us to gauge their reactions. Our Facebook page in particular receives not only likes, shares and comments, but allows users to send private messages to the administrators if there is something in particular they want to see or if they need more information about a topic or post they’ve seen on the page. We’ve been given valuable tips through these private messages about upcoming events or activities, and great photos that individuals in the Brigade have sent through which we’ve then re-posted to our social media pages.
7. Finally, commanders must advocate, empower and, if necessary, make mandatory the use of social media by their subordinate leaders. Some of my commanding officers were initially a little uncomfortable using Twitter, but they have realised that it allows them to reach different communities of interest that they may not have had access to previously. For example, it is amazing the number of people out there who just love pictures of tanks and search dogs! Unit commanders are naturally competitive within a Brigade — the best use of social media and best product has become just another aspect of that competition. And we all benefit from this.
I would not propose the lessons above as a template for other military organisations. The best use of social media will vary between our Services, functions, locations and military cultures. But I would encourage other military commanders to go on their own journey of discovery with social media. Not doing so means that they are missing an opportunity to learn more about how many of their service personnel — and the wider communities that we all proudly serve — communicate and expect to be led in the digital age.
Brigadier Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer and commander of its 1st Brigade located in Darwin. 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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