Social media is by definition social.

Thus, it raises real security concerns among the Army brass. Until recently, many surely bristled at the thought of communicating with their personnel through popular social media platforms.

However, now 1,014,050 — and counting — like the Army Facebook page. More than 100,000 follow the Army on Twitter. And right now, nearly 33,000 are online sharing what’s happening in the 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, First Army, 1st Infantry Division and the Third Army/U.S. Army Central (to name a few) through the Army’s Facebook presence. 1

In charge of the Online and Social Media Division at the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon is SSG Dale Sweetnam.

There, he is responsible for producing social media training materials for the Army including the Army Social Media Handbook. He also assists in the maintenance of all the Army social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the Army Live blog. If it has to with Army social media, it comes through the Social Media Division.

In the beginning, there was push back from senior leaders noted SSG Sweetnam in a recent interview.

“Now the Chief of Staff of the Army is on Facebook; two, three and four star generals are on Facebook and communicating with soldiers through these platforms,” he said. “It hasn’t happened overnight, but there is a lot more acceptance among the leaders and organizations in general.”

Two-Way Street

Social media helps amplify the Army’s message in a way an email or story in an installation newsletter going to an audience of 4,000-5,000 never could, explained SSG Sweetnam.

With newsletters, there was no sure way to know if stories were read or used. “Now with social media, you communicate to an audience that is listening and you see them commentating, liking or sharing. You would not get this is a level of engagement from an installation newsletter or newspaper or national news coverage,” remarked SSG Sweetnam.

“With social media you have to be in tune with the environment itself and be able to evolve with it. You are not just I’m putting information out, you are taking information in as well,” he noted. “It becomes a two-way street and that is incredibly important when trying to communicate with such a broad audience. You not only reach the broader audience, but you hear, communicate and interact; social media is just another way to tell the story of the Army or an installation or unit’s story.”

Push and Pull

The Army.mil home page is still the central hub for dissemination of official information to the public.

“What social media does through Facebook and Twitter is drive traffic to those messages in a quick concise manner,” SSG Sweetnam said. “We are in a generation now where people are more likely to wait for the news to come to them rather actually than go out and find it. If you have a traditional web page, you want to bring them there through our Facebook or Twitter news feeds.”

For SSG Sweetnam and his colleagues it changes the ways they craft their messages. They strive to be more concise and engaging to get them to read the larger Army.mil story.

“We will pull quote from the story or a well written lead or video,” he said. “You want to grab and pull them in, but make it natural for them to get there. Don’t just push it out, but empower them to be part of a conversation.”

The result is more and more are visiting the Army Facebook and Twitter pages rather than the Army.mil web page. “Facebook is one of top referrers to Army.mil. People are reading the stories, but getting there through Facebook and Twitter.”

With smartphones, people are checking Twitter and Facebook everywhere.

“It is opening up a whole different level of interaction,” said SSG Sweetnam. “You just look at your Twitter account and then click through to the story. You don’t have to be anchored to an Army desktop to get Army news anymore.”

Educate To Be Secure

One of SSG Sweetnam’s primary functions is education and developing training materials that are distributed to the field. He has been instrumental in putting together the Army Social Media Handbook, which covers everything from how to use social media to what to do if you find an imposter Army Facebook page.

“(It talks about) what you need to be aware of when in deployed environment; what you can and cannot say; how to stay in touch when spouses are employed,” he noted. “The last thing we want to say is ‘here is social media, use it and good luck’. We are here to answer questions.”

The Official Army Slideshare website keeps all the social media materials in one place with presentations that provide solid fundamental knowledge on how to use social media in a safe and productive way. Safe use of social media what is behind Operation Security; it responds to a very natural concern and will always be a priority said SSG Sweetnam.

“But while this is a risk it is not going away, you can’t be scared of it,” he said. “Social media has some risks, but we need to do it; so we educate on things such as ‘don’t post your exact location or movements’. Nothing can eliminate all the risk; there is no magic bullet.

Every once in a while there is going to be a soldier who is going to say something he shouldn’t on a Facebook page,” he noted. “That will always be a risk, so we have to educate them to make sure they are using it appropriately and representing the Army in an effective manner.”

His Best Advice

Even though the day’s events often change plans, SSG Sweetnam said they have a seven day plan for their Facebook and Twitter posts. “We encourage all social media offices to do this; social media is 24 hours a day. You can’t turn it off when you go home. So the more planning you do in advance the easier it is to manage and have things you can post.”

Through trial and error SSG Sweetnam explained they found 5-6 Facebook posts per day is the “prime number for us. It is different for everyone and depends on the number of people in your audience.”

Noting there is a fine line between information and saturation where the audience is still receptive without being overwhelmed, he said they will put out 10-15 Tweets a day. “But the worst thing he says is having a Facebook page you never post to, or one you post to 20 times a day. You have to find your comfort zone.

With just a staff of just five and more than a million followers on Facebook, SSG Sweetnam says you need to understand how to use the platforms because “once you get the train moving you keep adjusting as you go on. We want to be on the platforms where people are, because that is where they are going to listen and engage.”

The best advice SSG Sweetnam has for others in government is to identify their mission and what is to be accomplished with social media.

“There are a lot of organizations that jump on to Facebook or Twitter and then don’t do anything with it,” he said. “That doesn’t reflect well on organization. The best thing to do is prior to getting involved is develop a social media plan, a five month goal detailing ‘where do we want to be?'”

Beyond that, he advises listening to those who are on your sites.

“Don’t talk just about press releases; don’t talk at them, talk to them and with them. Social media by definition is social, so you want to have this be a two-way street,” he said. “You want to an organization that shows it is interested in the population it serves. So plan and communicate effectively.”