New Public Relations, Social Media, Web Content — When It Comes to Social Media, the U.S. Army Says, “Have at it!” Just Remember OPSEC 101

Learn Social Media with Laurie Dunlop

U.S. ArmyArmy leadership began drumming operational security (OPSEC) into my head 20 years ago when my husband was a “butter bar” lieutenant. The recent explosion in social media caused me to wonder what the Army’s official take on this craze is, especially when it comes to OPSEC.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lt. Col. Kevin Arata to ask that very question. He is the director of the Online and Social Media Division Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.

I first asked Lt. Col. Arata whether the explosion of social media is in direct conflict with the Army’s OPSEC policy. He explained that so far it is not. He clarified that from a soldier level, our men and women are well schooled in what they should and should not say. The Army continues to educate them about what is appropriate and what is not throughout their careers. “No soldier would do anything to intentionally harm the Army or put their fellow soldiers at risk,” said Arata. “As long as our leaders continue to educate them the right way, I do not see this changing.”

From an Intel (intelligence) perspective, could the enemy piece things together to figure out something critical? In Arata’s honest opinion it seems unlikely.

On the public affairs (PAO) side Lt. Col. Arata does not view social media as a security concern because PAOs are trained and schooled thoroughly in media relations and OPSEC. According to Arata, the information you read that the Army released through social media is already out in public forums. “We now use social media as another tool to distribute information,” said Arata.

I asked Lt. Col. Arata about family member use of social media and its impact on operational security. After all, civilians are not in the direct chain of command. (Though I can say from experience, we may as well be!) He answered that his focus is at the Army-wide level. His office disseminates information and policy. Currently there is not a planned higher-level mechanism for dealing with a family member’s responsible use of social media (concerning OPSEC).

What I found most interesting is that this platform of social media is still new and ever-changing. The Army, just like any organization, is learning and planning its most effective use, too.

“We are working side by side with our operational security counterparts to learn how best to implement social media,” said Arata.

Arata illustrated there are still gray areas when it comes to OPSEC violation and social media. One OPSEC specialist shared with him an example of an Army family member who posted on Facebook that her soldier was deploying to Sauder City. One staffer saw this as a clear OPSEC violation while another did not because the Unit was already in Sauder City when the information was posted. Arata believes educating family members about OPSEC is key. “My general guideline is if you wouldn’t write your comment on a sign stuck in your front lawn, don’t post it to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. If you have reservations in that scenario, go with your gut!”

I also asked Lt. Col. Arata what the Army is doing to support good OPSEC while recognizing that soldiers and family members are actively participating in social media. “The bottom line is we educate, not regulate,” he said. “I believe our people know the right thing to do, and I have not personally seen flagrant violations.”

The Army’s Web site operates the official U.S. Army social media pages for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and many more. As of this writing, the Army’s Twitter page had 8,959 followers and 29,082 fans on their Facebook page.

They are dedicated to telling the soldiers’ stories and, in return, promoting those stories to others on social networking sites. Official U.S. Army organizations can submit the URL to their social media page(s) and, once approved, those links will be posted to the social media glossary on the U.S.Army site.

To read the Army’s official blog or connect to their social media sites, visit their Web site.

OPSEC poster“From an OPSEC perspective, we do have people that have included, as previously mentioned, such things as when or where their spouses are deployed,” said Lt. Col. Arata. “That could include unit names, locations, sizes, etc. While it’s seemingly harmless, over 80 percent of what Al Quaeda collects is from open source information, so a dozen, or a hundred pieces of information, pieced together from hundreds or thousands of pieces, could end up creating answers to the enemy’s questions. It’s best, therefore, to be very careful about what details are released. For instance, don’t post on a blog that your spouse is deployed. Don’t tell people in an open forum that you are anxiously awaiting your spouse’s return, and put a date! Keep postings and musings generic.”

I found three examples of postings on The U.S. Army Facebook fan page. (I xxed out specific unit names.) Comments like:

Butch xxxxx “just wanted to say again, my son is leaving for iraq, friday his birthday, to help defend our country and freedom, wishing him and all our men and women to be safe, remember to keep your head down and the power day. lets give mark and all our troops a big HOOAH!——”

Lauren xxxx “I love and miss my soldier who is serving in Afghanistan right now!! I have survived two weeks of this deployment. Just want to say thanks to all the soldiers for their service and to the families as well for their love and support!!”

Tami xxx “Glad I found this site, my son Tony is currently serving with the xxxth BSB, xxx BCT, xx xxxxx xxx, (Fort xx xx) in Afganistan. I pray every day for his safe return along with his fellow soldiers.”

While each posting alone is not a clear description of unit movement dates and times, it could contribute to giving information to our enemies. Keep in mind I pulled these three quotes from hundreds in a matter of minutes.

Our Army continues to expand its use of social media alongside the business community. This summer they start using social media to monitor key terms and phrases. This can help the Army determine where they need to engage and respond. They already participate in conversations with some military bloggers.

In an effort to ensure consistent knowledge and use of social media across the services, the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard collaborate in their social media efforts by meeting monthly. They have established an All Services Social Media Council comprised of about 50 people across the services, to include the Department of Defense. They have been meeting regularly for six months now, and in addition to discussing the best practices in social media, they also invite experts to help their efforts. This past month their normal two-hour meeting was arranged as a day-long seminar, hosted by Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. Presenters included representatives from each of the services, a Georgetown professor, a civilian social media firm, and a Facebook representative. This helps keep all of the services abreast of the latest trends in this quickly changing and advancing field.

Our military’s leadership understands the value of social media to reach out to the public. Admiral That W. Allen, commandant of the United States Coast Guard, updates his blog, iCommandant, from his Treo. General Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi National Task Force in Iraq, owns a very popular Facebook fan page that he updates with comments and news segments from Iraq. (Become a fan and watch a video of Gen. Odierno shaving comedian Stephen Colbert’s head during his recent visit to Iraq.)

I guess I can stop worrying about my Facebook page and adhere to the same standards I learned many moons ago. It’s ok to share my thoughts in social media as long as I remember safety first for our soldiers, their families, and our country!

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  1. Ladies Watch


    To talk about Army people should have brains and strength instead of heart and emotions!


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    Thanks for sharing the ways on how to do it. I have a small business and I use social media. I’m the only one who maintains it, I do the blogging, the articles, etc. And I always seek for an online advise and tips. And I find your blog so useful and helpful.

  3. Lawn Mower Repair Houston

    OPSEC is something that should be taught to many in the corporate world too. Just like the military many secrets are often inadvertently leaked through social media.

  4. Laurie Dunlop

    Agreed. With the Internet’s transparency and long memory, everyone should think about what they write online with caution!

  5. Laurie Dunlop

    Thanks so much for the feedback! Good luck with your blogging and social media efforts. Let me know if it is starting to generate business leads for you yet!

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(John Smith)