Air Force writes a book on social media protocol

Air Force strategist offers a few do's and don'ts on putting together an effective social media guidebook.

With the Defense Department's recent decision to open up DOD networks to social media sites, members of the military will be looking for guidance on what they can and can't do on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

“With the directive-type memorandum opening up social networks, suddenly you have an entire world of servicemembers who will have access to all these sites,” said Paul Bove, social media strategist for the Air Force Public Affairs Agency's Emerging Technology Division, speaking today at the Open Government Innovations 2010 conference in Washington. “And they need to have policy on what they can and can't post on them.”

And on that point, the Air Force Public Affairs Agency is ahead of the curve: The agency published its first guidebook to using social media for airmen more than a year ago. “Guides eliminate the excuse of, ‘I didn't know,’” said Bove.

Bove spoke at the conference about the process of putting together that guide, titled Social Media and the Air Force, now out in its second version. He also spoke about its overall success — both as a tool for airmen and in gaining recognition for the Air Force in social media circles.

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Version 2 of the guide, printed in November 2009, is now being shipped out to every major Air Force command, along with Air Force Public Affairs guidance on the DOD's new social media policy implementation.

“Our efforts go back into 2008,” Bove said. “That's when the Air Force really started to get involved in social media. We had nothing that really construed guidance for social media—there was no guidebook or instruction manual. There were a lot of resources on the Web, but they aren't tailored to any particular organization's needs. And a lot of organizations didn't have a social media plan at the time. So [Air Force] Maj. [David] Faggard, who was our division chief at the time, said, 'Let's write our own book.'”

Bove went through the key parts of the process of creating a social media guide for a government organization, using the Air Force guide as a case study. The first step, he said, is to determine if a guide is really necessary. “Often there's sufficient guidance elsewhere in policy,” he said, and that simply pulling that policy together for reference will be enough.

In the Air Force's case, there was existing policy regarding operational security that applies to social media. But as far as other activities on social media, “We saw there wasn't policy that existed,” he said. “So we thought this would be useful. We call it a guidebook or textbook; this isn't official guidance from the Secretary of the Air Force.”

Bove emphasized the importance of having leadership understand and approve of the process of creating a social media guide early in the process. “If you're going to decide that you need a guidebook, leadership is going to want to know why, and what's the cost,” he said, adding that advance research, including social media site surveys and other resources are important in bolstering an argument for the need for a guide.

Bove also said getting the agency's legal department to look over the plan is an important part of the process. “Talk to your legal department, and say, 'This is our plan--is there anything we should consider, that might violate copyrights, or any other issues?'”

Bove noted that the effort to produce the 30-page guide's first version, along with an accompanying video and a decision-tree poster for assessment of blog and social media posts and how to respond, were significant. He emphasized that teams taking on the task of producing a guide should “crowd-source” within their department, breaking up the work across people with the skills to handle elements of writing and design.

The Air Force's guide—with more than 10,000 copies printed and an electronic version posted on the Air Force's main Web pagehas garnered mostly positive feedback from leaders in the social media marketing community. Bove pointed out that it ranks at the top of Google search results for “blog assessment” and other keywords.

But Bove noted that this didn't come without incident—an early draft of the blog assessment chart was leaked to the Internet, and was picked up by Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog and portrayed unfavorably. “They took the material out of context,” he said. “And it wasn't our final version, so there were still errors in it.” The Wired blog was then picked up by the New York Times and a local Washington TV station.

Bove used this as a cautionary tale. “Make sure anyone working on your team knows that the material is for internal use and proprietary until it's done and approved,” he said.


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