This post first appeared on Technorati.com
As part of a campaign in the mid 1940’s to educate soldiers and their families on the perils of too much information sharing during wartime, the military issued communication guidelines for writing letters home, while public service ads proclaimed, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
With the reputation for non-disclosure that the US military has, it’s somewhat unexpected that the US Army represented one of the biggest brands exhibiting at BlogWorld & New Media Expo this month. But the US Army appears to have leap-frogged many familiar brands in corporate America by embracing user-generated content as a way to connect with and convert potential customers.
How did it come to be that the US Army designed a blog, Armystrongstories.com, to actually encourage soldiers to tell their stories? According to Lieutenant Colonel Andre Dean, Chief of Strategic Communications for the US Army Accessions Command, which is responsible for recruitment, it was possible because of the vision of one very savvy Lieutenant General who knows a little something about taking risks.
General Freakley serves as the Commanding General for the U.S. Army Accessions Command and Senior Commander of Fort Knox. The General has served the Army for almost 35 years at every level of command from platoon leader through division commander. He has led Soldiers in combat three times, serving in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). So, what kind of risk could conversational media present to a guy like this?
General Freakley did have to get an exception to Department of Defense policy to enable his team to launch the blog nearly three years ago. Lieutenant Colonel Dean pointed out the same need exists today as there was during World War 2 to keep the US military efforts confidential so soldiers in the field are safe. "Our troops don't want to jeopardize operations or put anyone in harm's way. Very few people have time or access to blog from the battlefield."
On leave, or when they are back at base-camp, soldiers may go online and share stories about their experiences. And Army Strong Stories is not limited to just Active Duty soldiers, and welcomes contributions from Reservists, National Guard members and cadets. Indeed, many of the top bloggers are not actively facing or writing about combat. Popular occupations for Army bloggers are public affairs, human resources and the Army band. The most prolific blogger is a Major in the Army Medical Department.
One frequent blogger is Major Benjamin Grimes of the Judge Advocate General, who is based in Tacoma, Washington. Major Grimes says he writes because “I really like what I do.” Struck by the transparency the blog provides, Major Grimes jumped at the opportunity to share both the good and bad about daily Army life. He is able to write about his disappointment in leadership and the responsibility that he feels to teach subordinate soldiers how to make tough choices. “Not every day is full of unicorns and rainbows,” he said. “By writing with Army Strong Stories, I help to give life and depth to many people’s image of a faceless, soulless Army.”
With over 1400 posts from more than 400 bloggers, and an additional 1300 comments to publish, you might imagine that the Army would have their hands full editing and fact-checking content, not to mention training soldiers fresh out of high school how to communicate effectively on behalf of the brand. But Lieutenant Colonel Dean says editorial work is limited to removing occasional content that doesn't comply with the site guidelines. "The biggest surprise has been that we have had to do very little of that. When we discover a story that is false we'll remove it, but for the most part the community polices itself."
Despite evidence that the site drives traffic to GoArmy.com and brings fans to Facebook, it has yet to ignite a social media fire across other branches of the military. Lieutenant Colonel Dean says the Accessions Command team recognizes the blog isn't only about the conversion metrics for recruits and is committed for the long term. "When the war began seven years ago, there was a lot of positive press about what our troops were doing." But with media coverage focusing on the economic battles US citizens face back at home, soldiers' stories are simply not being told as often. Soldier bloggers fill that void, and help maintain top-of-mind awareness for the Army brand.