- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2011

In the defense industry, it is incumbent upon us constantly to reassess the tools in our arsenal to gauge their effectiveness. The story of how social media became a valued asset begins, like many others, with a unique idea and ensuing internal bureaucratic struggles. The outcome is a successful policy launched by the public sector - the Department of Defense - and joined by many in the private sector that enables us to do better what taxpayers and our customers expect us to do: our jobs.

When I joined the Defense Department in June 2009 to head public affairs, I arrived at the beginning of a debate that is still being waged within organizations large and small - whether and how to use social media as a successful communications tool.

Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense and former president of Texas A&M University, had seen firsthand how social-media platforms could be used to communicate directly and effectively with the community. Although that type of individual communication was not possible because of the sheer magnitude of Defense’s combined civilian and uniformed work force (about 2.5 million), he advocated for a more proactive approach in determining how it could work.

But most great ideas are followed by internal struggle and roadblocks. Security is the defense industry’s utmost priority. And less than a month later, the head of Strategic Command ordered access blocked to all social-media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, given inherent security risks. There also were the tried-and-not-true claims that social media drained productivity. This order received lots of attention - from traditional media outlets to a few spoof news sites - including my favorite headline: “Marine Corps Tells Maggot Pukes to Shut the Hell Up!”

When the dust settled, a new and - most would say - successful policy was created to allow access to all Internet-based capabilities across the Department of Defense, both military and civilian. Not only could the men and women on the front lines communicate with their family and friends - such as a father helping his kids with their homework using Skype - but the door also was opened to use social media as a tactical tool.

Using social media, we updated the counterinsurgency manual in real time rather than waiting to do a post-conflict analysis - a move that saved lives and continues to do so.

One of the greatest benefits of social media is the opportunity to engage fully with the American people about our policies and goals. Just as in corporations and organizations, the public sector can actively listen to its constituents and, in some cases, change policies based on feedback, such as the reinstatement of benefits for military spouses following the online outcry at their curtailment. The success of social-media engagement in defense is not limited to the public sector; similar success stories abound in the private sector as well, especially for companies with dispersed staff and those with highly “stovepiped” internal organizations.

Social media, after all, is a tool for communication, development, collaboration and transparency. The best part of social-media platforms is that the American work force is already taking part in these new ways of communicating. We in the defense industry are catching up with our own work force.

The question that faced the defense industry is not dissimilar from issues in other industries: Will you have any influence on what is being said about you, your people, your policies and your products? Can we access and leverage our internal knowledge to meet the challenges the organization - public or private - faces? The answer at the Defense Department was, and is, yes. The key is to understand that most of your people already have joined the social-media revolution. It’s time for you to suit up and join the battle.

Price Floyd is vice president of digital media strategy at BAE Systems Inc. and former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

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