Nov 04 2008

Reaching Out to Our 'Digital Natives'

In a November 2007 speech at the University of Kansas, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates spelled out a problem clearly for everyone in the Defense Department: “New institutions are needed for the 21st century, new organizations with a 21st-century mind-set. It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.”

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review — one of the military’s chief strategy documents — outlined the need for development of a new-media capability in a world that’s networked 24x7. My directorate is one result of that recommendation. New media lets us create a more customized experience for our diverse, worldwide audiences.

Reality 1: You must model your audience.

DOD members can access our news and information where they want it, when they want it. With 65 percent of our 2.6 million uniformed military population composed of what we call “digital natives” — troops age 27 or younger, who grew up virtually immersed in digital technology — we must gear our communications to the way they consume information.

New and emerging technologies, such as the blogosphere and mobile communication devices, present new avenues through which to provide information to service members, their families and also the American public. The old media landscape has changed. One-way communication and high barriers to entry onto the media playing field have given way to ubiquitous connectivity and news as conversation. Evolving technology has made it possible for dialogue to occur on a global scale, and everyone can take part. But your organization has to be ready.

Reality 2: You have to lead to get followers.

We are fortunate at DOD to have the technology, human infrastructure and, most important, forward-leaning leaders who understand the importance of using new communications media. Although some are skeptical about reaching audiences through new media, others have embraced it, especially those with teenagers who know the importance of these technologies to digital-native audiences. DOD now uses blogs, wikis, widgets, mobile devices, social networks and other web-based outlets to give us more direct, two-way access to our audiences than we could achieve through traditional methods.

Ensuring your communicators have access to social networking sites and other online destinations such as YouTube, BlogTalkRadio and iTunes is essential. As a general rule, DOD blocks access to those sites from government computers and grants exemptions based on mission need. Our IT team worked diligently to obtain both the policy exemptions and support for our ongoing new-media engagement activities. We also worked closely with our web operations team as we developed new programs such as the Bloggers’ Roundtable, widgets and text messaging, while redesigning our websites to provide more interactive capabilities.

Reality 3: You must become part of this new community.

We reached out to new-media providers, such as AddThis, the bookmarking and sharing button on the Internet. They provided us with a DOD version of the AddThis interface that met our web policy requirements and helped us spread our content and information across
the web.

We also invested in new servers and software that allowed us to have collaborative online work spaces and to host blogging in the DOD dot-mil domain.

Reality 4: You can’t be everywhere (even online), so you must be choosy.

Just a word of caution: While it’s important to leverage new-media venues to communicate your agencies’ information, you also need to be careful about selecting the outlets that are right for you. Some endeavors must be kept current to be successful, which can be quite time-consuming. So, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

The ongoing transformation of the department is re-posturing and re-equipping our force to meet current and future challenges. We need new tools, new outlets and a new understanding to remain competitive in the 21st century. For this reason, Defense is using new media to engage key audiences using next-generation tools.

Future battlefields may not be identifiable on maps. In a war with no boundaries, empowering our internal audience with real-time information, context and the tools to share their unique experiences equips them as they defend our freedom and democracy.

Photo: Jemes Kegley