Photo by Timothy L. Hale, U.S. Army

Social Media and the Military Leader

CCLKOW is a weekly conversation on military affairs jointly hosted by the Center for Company-Level Leaders (CCL) at the US Military Academy at West Point and the Kings of War (KOW), a blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. This week’s post was provided by Gary M. Klein, an Army Officer and member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army or the Department of Defense. Read the post and join the discussion on Twitter #CCLKOW.

To many of us reading this now, social media is old hat. We own at last one social media account on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, RallyPoint, etc. and we’ve been active on those account(s) for the better part of our lives. However, most of this engagement has been as a part of our personal life, not necessarily our professional life; this seems to be shifting within the current decade though. More and more leaders are embracing social media as an aspect of their professional lives, and more military units and organizations are using social media to share their messages as well. Nevertheless, our social media experiences are varied and there is still much to learn. In this week’s #CCLKOW, we’ll frame some of the common questions and seek your ideas as to the advantages and challenges of social media and the military leader.

Advantages and challenges inherent to social media

The first question that most military leaders ask is a version of the basic value proposition. How does social media benefit our mission or improve our professional situation? At one end of the spectrum there are those who fear the legitimate cyber security concerns and/or potential repercussions: “you can’t un-post something” once it is on the internet; consider what you share to be visible to the world; be careful of unintentionally revealing personally identifiable information (PII), which can lead to identity theft, etc. [See the Army’s Cyber Crime Prevention Tips] These are all valid concerns, but on the other hand, what opportunities do you abandon if you shun social media?

Social media and your audience

Different methods of communicating reach different audiences and each method has corresponding advantages and disadvantages. Many traditional forms of communication require a physical proximity or previous encounter to facilitate the sharing of contact information. Social media on the other hand can be harnessed for its ability to flatten a hierarchical communication structure and amplify a leader’s presence. Understanding these advantages and disadvantages can help us determine the right communication method for different situations.

For example, there are many methods of communication — traditional letter, social media, e-mail, phone call, face-to-face, etc. To help us chose the right method, you might applying existing military models such as a PACE (primary, alternate, contingency, or emergency) plan, or maybe an engagement “escalation of force.” These models frame a spectrum of options to assist you in your decision making. So which end of the spectrum should you start at for which types of situations? To refocus on social media, you must ask yourself, what is your message? Who is your intended audience? What is the best way to reach your intended audience? Does this constitute a form of tactics in the cyber domain? Do you use one platform for your personal life and another for your professional life? Is it beneficial to create another persona (on-line profile) to represent your unit or organization?

Social media vignettes

The questions presented thus far are suitable for discussion on Twitter. However, to broaden our aperture, this last question — more like a request — seeks a more detailed response to capture the context of our social media experiences. To ensure maximum exposure and collaboration use Medium’s “Write a response…” option at the bottom of this post so that others can see it, read it, and learn.

Final Question/Request: Reflect upon your social media experience and write a sentence or two — a paragraph or more if you’re ambitious — to share your own thoughts and insight concerning social media as a military leader.

If you are disinclined to write and share your own experiences, another option is to share an existing post that addresses this topic. You can “Write a response…” with a simple link or add a title/synopsis as you feel comfortable. For the latter option, two great examples are Jonathan Silk’s “Hashtag(#) Leader Development: Using Twitter to Develop a Professional Learning Network for Leaders and Joe Byerly’s thoughts in “The Power of our Connections,” here, and here.

In summary, the main questions are as follows…

1. What benefits can we derive from using social media and how can it enhance our professional situation?

2. What are your most significant concerns when using social media?

3. Who is your primary audience when you use social media? Or who are you trying to influence?

4. Reflect on your own social media experiences and use Medium’s “Write a response…” option at the bottom of this post to share your thoughts and insight regarding the use of social media as a military leader.

…I look forward to the discussion on Twitter.

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