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4 Facebook lessons from DOD

Agencies need to learn some rules of the road before jumping into social media

* By Fred Wellman
* Apr 21, 2010

Now that both the White House and Defense Department have established social media policies, more organizations are certain to leap into the fray and launch social networking sites. Unfortunately, many are setting out without a full understanding of the risks, rules and etiquette, and they are failing to capitalize on the opportunities those new channels present.

With more than 400 million active users worldwide, Facebook has become the first choice for a foray into social media, especially for military organizations. Facebook features more than 1,000 official military fan pages, ranging from small units and recruiting stations all the way to the upper echelons of DOD.

Janson Communications decided to take a look from a fan's perspective at how the military is using Facebook. We reviewed more than 680 pages and divided them into four categories — personality-focused, location-based, organizational and recruiting-oriented — and examined them for best practices.

That holistic approach yielded some interesting results and lessons not only for the military but also for any government organization delving into Facebook (The full report is available here).

Mark It 'Official'

The popularity of the military means there are thousands of fan pages honoring military leaders, units and bases. Many of them look official but have no connection or link to the government. For example, a clone page might use the name "Fort Campbell" when the actual government-run page is "Fort Campbell, Kentucky." Given the proliferation of such fan pages, it is imperative for government site administrators to clearly mark the official pages of their organizations.

Create and Enforce Terms of Use

By its nature, social media creates a freewheeling conversation in which anyone can say whatever they want — often in the most inappropriate ways. That doesn't necessarily mix well with an official government outlet, so agencies need to post rules of engagement prominently on official pages. Only 22 percent of the pages in our study had terms of use for fan behavior, and those that did weren't enforcing them strictly. Such rules are both appropriate and necessary for agencies that operate in social media environments.

Keep the Social in Social Media

During our study period in January, 84 percent of military Facebook pages had no interaction with their fans. Most were simply posting stories or press releases and not answering comments or wall posts from fans. The point of using these channels is to build a community around your organization or base. When you ignore your fans, you miss a great opportunity to gain valuable insight, engage your most passionate supporters and reach out to potential recruits, which is the purpose of social media to begin with.

Don't Let the Page Turn into a Zombie

While gathering information for the study, our research team found a startling number of pages that had never made it past initial setup or had gone inactive for extended periods of time. Like a zombie in a horror movie, those pages never die. They make an organization look foolish and oblivious to the culture of social media. Once you start, stay committed. Don't let the effort die out because the initial manager moves on or the organization as a whole loses interest.

The culture of social media is different from traditional communications channels, and when venturing into that world, government agencies should learn the ways of the community to make the most impact.

Fred Wellman is a retired Army public affairs officer and senior director of communications, public relations and social media at Janson Communications.

About the Author

Fred Wellman is a retired Army public affairs officer and the senior director of communications, public relations and social media for Janson Communications.

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