Navy gets on board with social media

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 7, 2009.

Sailors griping about change probably dates back to the days of sailing ships.

But when the U.S. Navy's chief enlisted sailor wanted to see how the force was dealing with new uniforms, he turned to a more modern tool to harvest their feelings: Facebook.

Over the course of a week or so, Master Chief Petty Officer Rick West dealt personally with questions posted on his Facebook forum about things like how warfare devices should be worn.

Using such tools is a big cultural shift, changing the way enlisted sailors and officers interact and opening up the process to a much bigger world.

To many sailors, it's necessary.

"These are communication devices that younger sailors are well-versed in, " said Senior Chief Bill Houlihan, a spokesman in West's office. "If we're going to reach them, it's important that we go to the tools that they use."

Such an embrace of social media comes at a time when the broader military is wrestling with the technology.

On the one hand, leaders worry about oversharing, hackers and bandwidth limits, while on the other they see the value of directly connecting with both troops and civilians.

Early last month the Marine Corps instituted a year-long ban on social media sites on its network, around the same time top U.S. commanders Maj. Gen. Michael Oates and Adm. James Stavridis started blogging from Iraq and Europe.

In May, the Army reversed a previous ban on access to such sites on its network, although the U.S. Strategic Command is considering instituting a military-wide block. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has almost 7,000 followers on Twitter, and the master chief petty officer of the Navy has more than 5,000 fans on Facebook.

Such sites are being used in myriad ways across the defense community, where the Department of Defense recently unveiled a social media-focused homepage at

The Navy has turned to this trend because it sees value in reaching out to different audiences in different ways.

"You need to talk to people where they are, " said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McIlnay, director of the Navy's new Emerging Media Integration Team. "Every public has different tools for us to reach them with."


Official use of social media sites is governed by Navy regulations concerning command Web sites and other public affairs activities. Individual commands' view of personal use of such tools varies, from frowned upon to encouraged.

David Stanton, a chief petty officer stationed aboard the Mayport Naval Station-based USS The Sullivans, started twittering when he noticed West was active online.

"There was a lot of Navy leadership leaning forward on Twitter as a quick way to put out what that particular command was doing, " he said. "We're pretty proud of our ship and I thought it would be a good way to tell that story."

It also helps civilians gain a greater understanding of what sailors do.

"So much of our public face is what you see on the mainstream media, " Stanton said. "That's good; people need to know that. But there's things happening elsewhere."

The Navy's use of social media makes it seem more approachable, said Navy Reserve Lt. Kaye Sweetser, who's also an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Georgia, where she focuses on Internet technology.

"Look at large organizations like Coke or Delta, " said the professor. "It seems like a cold corporate organization, but when you have those organizations interacting in social media, it gives them a human face and personality."

For a command like U.S. Forces Afghanistan, whose Facebook page doesn't feature an individual person, the benefit lies in the different audience social networking sites can reach and the speed with which it reaches them.

Lt. j.g. Tommy Groves remembers sending letters to his father when the older man was deployed on a Mayport carrier during Operation Desert Storm, letters that would take weeks to get there.

Now Groves, a Navy reservist who works for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, posts information to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, getting it out quicker even than e-mail.

Such messages reach a different audience than traditional news releases, the University of North Florida graduate said.

"The folks that are on Facebook want to be there, " he said. "People reading the newspaper might not want to be reading about Afghanistan."

Mayport-based 4th Fleet had a similar idea in mind when it set up a Facebook page chronicling the unit's activities.

"We have an internal portal where the command can see what's going on, but there's nowhere for spouses to see, " said Lt. Myers Vasquez, the public affairs officer who started the page. "People don't know what's out there."

Other social networking users see the technology as a way to tell more personal stories, such as Command Master Chief Richard Hay of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11 based at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

A radioman who enjoys tinkering with technology and the Internet, Hay had built up a 1,360-member following on a personal Twitter account. The sailors he leads now grew up with the Internet, text messaging and social media sites.

"Why not go to them on their medium of communication?" he said about reaching out to sailors who are active online. "We have to adapt, we have to evolve."


As the Navy adapts to the new technology, it has to wrestle with security issues, such as breaches stemming from tweets and status updates being widely viewable as well as more technical threats such as hackers accessing the Department of Defense network through social media sites.

The Navy also has concerns about burdening its network, particularly on ships at sea.

The goal is to balance security precautions with the need to communicate, according to Price Floyd, who took over as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs at the Pentagon in June. Floyd's job is to particularly focus on using social media sites and other tools to get out the Defense Department's message.

Navy social media users said problems aren't insurmountable, being not dissimilar to security issues military members deal with all the time.

"We train our crew on what to say and what not to say, " said Stanton, who started his career in military intelligence. "That's always a concern of ours."

Security issues raised by social media are real, said Houlihan, but are no different than in the rest of Navy life.

"If someone is using Facebook or Twitter and not using common sense, it can be a security risk, " he said. "We ask our sailors to keep operation security and personal security in mind."

With such training in place, the value of using the tools can outweigh the risks they present.

"We hope it doesn't get banned, " Houlihan said. "The level of discourse and information exchange is invaluable. We'll continue to do it from our homes if we have to."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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