The U.S. military is proud of its history and strength as a top-down organization, with a clear chain of command. In fact, you can’t talk to anyone in military public affairs (the equivalent of private-sector public relations) without hearing the inevitable phrase “chain of command” in response to a question.
And that’s the problem for the military, when it comes to new media and bottom-up messaging: How can it join the communications revolution when it can’t organizationally grasp the democratization of media with blogs, online video and podcasting?
That’s why one Pentagon public affairs specialist Steve Field (pictured above) recently left his post for a job at Edelman PR. Field, 24, had been writing a fascinating blog about new media and the military called D-Ring PR, a literal reference to the Pentagon ring where he had worked. But in late October, he left the military after three years because he knew it would take a Herculean effort for the military to really “get” new media.
Here’s how Field explained his move on his blog:
In the past year, through this blog and elsewhere, I have been opened to the many changes in the way people are communicating. I believe we are in the middle of a communication revolution and I want to be a part of it. In embracing social media, the military, a notoriously chain-of-command, top-down, hierarchical organization, would need to take a leap of faith and completely invert the way it communicates. Such a decision would need to come from the top — from the Secretary or the Army Chief of Staff. As a junior staffer at the Pentagon, I am not in a position to create that change in the Army.
So Field decided to go out of the frying pan (the military’s tough PR spot with an unpopular war) and into the oven (Edelman’s black eye over fake Wal-Mart blogs). A few weeks ago, I spoke to Field in-depth about his experience in public affairs at the Pentagon. While Field wouldn’t talk about Edelman’s own bad PR over the fake blogs, he was candid about his thoughts on the recent controversy over an Army crackdown on military blogs.
“I don’t think you can describe what they’re doing as cracking down at all, it’s mostly monitoring, and if they do see a case of a military blogger divulging information that could risk the lives of other soldiers, they’re telling his chain of command to get them to take it down,” Field said.
While the Tanker Brothers blog had threatened to “go into hibernation” over the new Army oversight of blogs, it’s still going strong as of mid-November. And some RedState commenters actually liked the idea of the Army taking a closer look at military bloggers.
“There is a real trade off between [protecting operational security] and fighting the ‘information war’ at home,” commenter Smagar wrote. “Perhaps I’m biased, but I side with the security officer here. If the enemy is benefiting from our troops’ online chatting, we need to clamp down on that. Freedom to speak does not include the freedom to say something careless that might get your buddy killed next week.”
The following is an edited transcript of my phone conversation with Steve Field on the topics of military blogging, the Pentagon’s reorganization and new media focus, and his master’s study program in communications.
How long had you been at the Pentagon and what was your position there?
Steve Field: I was a public affairs specialist, just one of the staff workers in the staff of the Chief of Public Affairs, which is a staff of about 100. I was kind of entry to mid-level position, and one of the younger people. The Pentagon is interesting, when you compare it to some of my other military assignments like Fort Lewis or Fort Meade, where you actually have soldiers out there. The skew of the rank of people is just so astronomically to the top that even what would be considered a mid-level person somewhere else is considered a shoe-shiner at the Pentagon.
I was in the outreach division [at the Pentagon], and I was doing community engagement stuff. The thing I started with first was the development of this new website, Army.mil/outreach. They wanted to redesign it and add a little more connectivity to it. So we came up with this concept to have a calendar on there, where anyone could go and see events from across the country, and where the Army was at those events.
I was working on that, and they also had me spearheading the Army sports marketing, in terms of recognizing soldiers at professional sporting events. I worked a lot with the NFL, lots of stuff with Major League Baseball, events all across the country to get people at these events to think about the soldiers.
Tell me about how you started your D-Ring PR blog.
Field: I started [at the Pentagon] in July of 2005. I’ve been working with the Army since 2003, as a civilian. Every year the Army has this conference, the Worldwide Public Affairs Symposium. All the Army communicators get together and talk about issues in Army communications. They invited Shel Holtz, a prolific PR blogger, to come speak about new media.
I’ve been reading blogs and following new media for awhile, but at the end of his presentation, he challenged us: ‘If you really want to learn about this stuff, just start a blog. Just jump in and engage and start learning, because that’s the only way you’re going to find out about it.’ So I thought, ‘You know what? I should do just that.’ And I did.
When you started the blog, did you have to get approval from your bosses? What were the rules around them?
Field: I talked to my supervisor at the time, and said, ‘Listen I want you to know I’m starting a blog and it’s going to be about public relations, and will be about the Army a little too.’ She said, ‘That’s fine.’ Another officer forwarded me the policy that was put out by U.S. Central Command about blogging. It was a combination of that and common sense.
I imposed on myself a rule that I wouldn’t write about anything that hadn’t been previously released by Army Public Affairs or the Department of Defense. I wouldn’t talk about ongoing operations, I wouldn’t release the names of soldiers who had not already been released. Stuff like that. I figured that the same rules for release in my everyday job should be judiciously used for anything I blogged about.
What kind of feedback did you get from your bosses?
Field: Pretty much none. No one at work read the blog, it was just kind of there, which was just fine by me. Without being monitored and tracked, I felt really free, even though I knew that anyone from work could see it. No one really expressed interest, and when I started it, the Army was just starting to come to terms with the blogosphere.
What are your views politically? Are you a Democrat, Republican or Independent, or do you try to be non-partisan on your blog?
Field: Politically, I am personally a moderate Democrat. (Yes, there are Democrats who work at the Pentagon. More than a few.) As far as why — it might be the idealist in me, but I believe society works best when government helps the least advantaged. That is why I favor strong civil rights protections, economic policies that ensure everyone is taken care of, and a robust defense that protects us all.
My blog politics, on the other hand, are neutral. I don’t care if you are left, right, center or other. The topic of my blog transcends political ideology. All I care about in my writing is how the military can use the new media environment to better connect with people. How much more apolitical can that get?
What is that policy on blogging for the Army?
Field: Well, for soldiers that are in [the war] theater, they must register their blogs with their commander, so they’re aware their blog exists. They have to follow all the policies for operational security that are laid out in the Army manual, AR 25-1, that talks about the rules and policies for online information distribution. The reason those are in place is to protect the security of the operations of soldiers overseas [by not giving away troop positions]. So as long as the soldier’s commander is aware of the blog, you don’t violate operational security, that’s pretty much it.
Do you feel the rules are fair or that they’re being overenforced now?
Field: I think they’re absolutely fair. My personal opinion is that this whole kerfuffle in the blogosphere over this is a prime example how Army communicators can get out ahead of the message and still end up looking like the bad guy. This whole thing actually started when the Army put out on the military wire this story about the Virginia National Guard unit that would be monitoring military blogs. The Army came out and said, ‘This is what we ‘re doing, and why we’re doing it,’ and gave really good reasons. And then the military bloggers came out and cried foul and said they were cracking down.
The Tanker Brothers blog was the first one to say they were cracking down, and then everyone in the media started to use the term ‘cracking down’ regardless of what the Pentagon was actually doing. I don’t think it’s the case at all. It’s the same policy that they had out before. I don’t think you can describe what they’re doing as cracking down at all, it’s mostly monitoring, and if they do see a case of a military blogger divulging information that could risk the lives of other soldiers, they’re telling his chain of command to get them to take it down. It’s not to get people in trouble, it’s not to see which soldiers can we punish. The purpose of the policy is to make sure the soldiers that are over there are safe.
Maybe they hadn’t been paying attention so much to the rules before, and now that there’s oversight, they’re paying more attention to the rules?
Field: I guess that there’s more oversight, now that the National Guard unit’s been activated toward enforcement of the policy. But I think it’s a bit unfair to call it a crackdown when the policy has been there the entire time.
You said something about the Army getting ahead of itself and even so, they look bad. The military bloggers have a really strong voice in the blogosphere, but the Army itself doesn’t have a voice there, outside of official channels and press releases.
Field: And that’s the paradox, because the voice of the Army is the voice of the soldier. It’s difficult to try and separate the two, and that’s something the military is struggling with. The entire nature of the new media environment is about openness and transparency and people being able to express their opinions. And 99.99% of the time, the soldiers are the best spokesmen to do that, and that’s why we want our soldiers to get out and talk. But you take the flat nature of new media and its transparency and compare that with the linear hierarchical nature of the military and you get some clashes sometimes. The military has a lot of work to do to mold itself to fit the new media environment.
Someone wrote how there are some people who get it and some who don’t in the military, and maybe that’s a generational thing. Are there people who are older who don’t get it?
Field: I think there could be. I don’t see the military being different than Fortune 500 companies in that respect. You have companies that are out there being engaged in new media and you’ve got huge monster companies who aren’t because they don’t get it or are afraid of doing business in new ways. I think that it’s difficult for the Army to simultaneously deal with the massive issues it has such as fighting a war on two fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq; the challenges of recruiting an all-volunteer force and sustaining an all-volunteer force; doing a reset of all the weapons and machinery, tanks and armor that are needed overseas, and simultaneously adopting a whole new system of communications that are inherently at odds with the command structure of the military. That’s a lot.
Unfortunately it’s something that needs to be done, because the real thing that’s going to lose the war on terrorism is the PR war. Our military might is unchallenged, but unless we win the hearts-and-minds battle, then we aren’t going to be able to win. That’s the bottom line.
How do you win the hearts-and-minds battle using new media?
Field: I think milblogs are a great way to do that, on the domestic front. One of the big things we made sure people knew about the Army was, regardless of what you think about a given administration’s policy, you’ve always got to support the soldier. As long as the American people are supporting the war fighter, and the people who are serving the country, that gives them the motivation to keep fighting the war on terror. There’s that aspect of the military bloggers helping to create an understanding in the American public about what it is that these men and women are doing overseas.
The other part, and maybe I’m not the best person to talk about this, I’ve heard the ruminations in the blogosphere about a grand strategy that’s coming out of the State Department that will be run in partnership with the Department of Defense in engaging new media in emerging democracies like Iraq and Afghanistan. Teach them about open participation. The more you’ve got free lines of communication, the open dialogue, the more that the idea of democracy can spread. Transparency breeds democracy.
What about soldier videos? I’ve written about soldiers in war zones making music videos out of them. Now is there more oversight of those, and how do you see them as giving a soldier’s view of the war?
Field: That’s a really good question, because I haven’t seen a lot of those personally made soldier videos. A lot of those seem to be about pumping up the troops, getting them excited for the mission — I’m not sure how that plays outside of that. These videos are getting uploaded to the Internet through video-sharing sites. I think it’s an interesting thing to research, how these soldier videos play outside the military. What those messages mean to American people and people overseas. I don’t have an answer to that.
At the top level, I think there’s a realization that blogs are something we have to deal with. These military bloggers are powerful, and people online are becoming an influential force to be dealt with. I think that’s why there’s this massive reorganization of the Office of Secretary of Defense’s Public Affairs. They’re setting up a whole new team that’s directly related to engaging new media, under the direction of Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
Tell me about your new job at Edelman, and the school work you’re doing now.
Field: I’m getting my masters degree at Johns Hopkins in communications, which is really cool. I’m concentrating in digital technologies, focusing mostly on new media research. I’m interested in the research aspects because everyone’s going around talking about the power of new media but I still think there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of quantifying new media and the real impact of new media.
Right now the research that I’m starting on is dealing with — it’s a departure from the military stuff — I’m looking at the effectiveness of using social networking sites such as MySpace as a primary online presence for movie promotions, such as “Snakes on a Plane.” In terms of scholarly, peer-reviewed work, there’s not that much out there. There’s lots of stuff about blogging, but not much on other stuff.
What do you think about the fake Wal-Mart blogs, and Edelman’s involvement in that?
Field: I’m not the best person to talk to about that. I know that since then, there’s been lots and lots of training about ethics and new media [at Edelman]. There’s nothing more I could tell you about it than that. I don’t have all the details about it, and I don’t want to judge what happened without knowing about it.
In terms of my blogging, I’m recreating the D-Ring, and will close down the one that I started, because it was me feeling my way through it. I’m launching a new D-Ring blog. It’s solely going to be focused on where the military and new media collide. It will be focused on the successes and not-so-successes of the engagement of the military with new media. I’ll be delving into the milblogging controversy, and the defense contractors that are out there and whether they’re engaging in new media or not.
What do you think about the recent controversy about milbloggers and more Army oversight of them? Is the policy fair or too restrictive? Can you think of ways that the military could use Web 2.0 techniques to engage the public better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.