Military leaders embrace social media

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
The very day he assumed his post as NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe last week, Navy Adm. James Stavridis reached out in a way none of the previous 15 NATO commanders since Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had: he posted a blog.

Admiral Stavridis has had a lot of firsts in his military career. He's the first sailor to hold NATO's top military post and command of U.S. European Command. But before that, he was the first geographic combatant commander, at U.S. Southern Command, to use Facebook and a personal blog to convey the importance of partnership and cooperation to confront threats facing Latin America and the Caribbean.

Now in his new post, he's wasting no time using the social media to get word out about his goals for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and EUCOM.

Admiral Stavridis named his new blog, "From the Bridge," a reference to the two commands' focus on bridging the Atlantic to link the United States and Europe.

With headquarters in both Mons, Belgium, and Stuttgart, Germany, he acknowledged in his inaugural blog the importance of being able to communicate EUCOM's and NATO's message intelligently, and his own leadership principles effectively.

"The professional characteristics that matter to me are simple: civility, quiet confidence, creativity, teamwork and collaboration, determination, and, above all, honesty and integrity," he wrote. "I'll write a future post about these characteristics and why I think they are essential."

Admiral Stavridis may be among the pioneers in recognizing the importance of social media to the military, but he's far from the exception. A growing number of senior military and defense leaders are turning to blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter entries and other social networking venues to share information and seek feedback.

They're using these new tools to communicate their goals and activities, seek broader input they can apply to their decision making and engage with groups that simply can't be reached through traditional communication channels.

The efforts run the gamut, from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' Facebook page to Joint Chiefs Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen's Twitter entries to blogs regularly updated by everyone from combatant commanders to troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Social media is a new phenomenon, with the first recognizable social network site tracing its roots to just 1997. But it's taken the world by storm. By some estimates, more than 60 million people maintain a blog. Meanwhile, the MySpace and Facebook social networking sites have quickly risen to become the most-visited U.S. Web sites.

The military has taken notice.

Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among the first military leaders to embrace social media. Before his current post, while commanding U.S. Strategic Command, he made the cutting-edge move of launching a command-and-control blog. His goal was to cut through the traditional top-down military structure and information stovepipes to improve communications.

Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, blogs regularly on his command's Web site.

When U.S. Africa Command was standing up as the newest geographic command, Army Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward made the first entry on its online blog, "AFRICOM Dialogue" to describe the command's goals to his own staff and the public at large. Since then, General Ward and his staff regularly post updates about the command's activities in the region, providing a feedback box that invites readers to respond.

Admiral Mullen announced on a July 2 Twitter "tweet" that he'd just launched his own Facebook page. More than 3,300 of his Twitter followers get regular updates of his travels, messages and other news.

Meanwhile, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, has been a long-time Facebook member. More than 6,250 fans have signed up for his page, and their comments are posted unfiltered, alongside many photos.

Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, updates his Facebook page daily with photos, news and comments from his fans. The fan base grew exponentially to almost 3,000 members just two and a half weeks after the page launched in early April, after it was mentioned during a TV interview.

These and other defense leaders recognize social media forums as the information tool of choice among the "millennial generation,"18-to-25-year-olds, many of whom don't read newspapers, tune in to network news or visit official Web sites.

In addition, they introduce a dynamic that leaders simply can't get through traditional communication methods: unfettered two-way engagement.

For example, 19 responders to Admiral Stavridis' new blog extended nuggets that may or may not have made it to him through his handlers. Most offered congratulations and best wishes. A couple had questions or advice about addressing strategic communications within NATO. One suggested that he make a video of himself when he travels to Afghanistan to underscore why the mission there matters.

"I'd like this forum to be a place where we can share ideas and opinions," Admiral Stavridis wrote, responding to their comments. "Please feel free to share your thoughts on how we might communicate most effectively, or on anything else, for that matter!"

Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the new SOUTHCOM commander, quickly took Stavridis' lead, posting his first "In the Americas" blog July 3, a week after his change-of-command ceremony in Miami.

General Fraser used his first blog message to outline his expectations of his staff and himself in engaging with the region. But he also made it clear he welcomes the open and professional exchange taking place throughout the command, the product of hard work and communication that can only be enhanced through social media tools.

"I hope we can all continue to build on this," he wrote. "I truly feel that no one of us is as strong as all of us together!"