Disruptive Thinking: The US Military Differs From Business

Earlier this week, US Air Force Captain Jeff Gilmore castigated the US military's social media strategy in a  Small Wars Journal op-ed contrasting the practices of Coca-Cola and the US Air Force's Air Mobility Command.  

No one doubts that social media is an important tool, and there's certainly much we can learn from the private sector.  However, goverment agencies are vastly different enterprises than corporations; they will undoubtedly have seperate social media strategies.    

Coca-Cola has a highly successful marketing strategy; it was rated as the Best Global Brand for the 13th consecutive year by Interbrand.  It is also the world's most recognizable brand name, with over 1.7 billion servings Coca-Cola beverages consumed every single day.  Coca-Cola products are sold in all but two countries in the world.  Aside from a brief period in the 1980s, its flagship product and its logo have remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years.  This helps create immense brand loyalty--witness the outrage over Coca-Cola's brief experiment with "New Coke".

Most importantly, Coca-Cola's $2.9 billion annual advertising project has one simple objective: to convince consumers to purchase Coke products.   Coca-Cola's marketing strategy has a simple measure of effectiveness--increased sales of Coke products.  Advertising and social media engagements are directly linked to Coca-Cola's success.

By contrast, the US military's communication strategy is more complex than that of a corporation.  In any democratic society, the military's communications goals must be subservient to those of the government--both Federal (Executive Branch and Legislative Branch) as well as State (in the case of the National Guard).  Not to mention, the US military must synchronize its messages with those of its international (e.g., NATO, ISAF), interagency (State Department), and inter-service partners.  This is no small feat.

The Department of Defense, an organization of over 3.2 million, is not a monolithic organization.  The uniformed services often disagree a variety of issues, including doctrine, manning, and procurement.  And each of the services themselves has various factions and organizations with their own agendas and objectives (e.g., the old rivalry between the US Air Force's Strategic and Tactical Air Commands).  Efforts to communicate must ensure that the services do not poke jabs at one another.    

To add to the complexity, the military's social media environment houses an ever-expanding cohort of military bloggers: some within the military, some recently separated, and even some who have never served.  Different agencies within the US military have varying views of "milbloggers", with the vast majority of senior military officials encourage blogging, though a small minority still espouse the absurd view that bloggers are an insurgent's best friend.  

The private sector and the military differ in even more important ways.  The nature of the US military--dealing with life-and-death matters--will require far more "damage control" than Coca-Cola.  The military is also bound to be far more truthful and honest in its media dealings than a private corporation.  We take it for granted that corporations like Coca-Cola will claim that its product will teach the world to sing, and that it can even make "Mean Joe" Green smile.  The US military, accountable to the American public, can not make similar claims in its engagement strategy.  (Well, with the notable exceptions of US Air Force transports which transform into robots, and US Marines smiting giant Balroqs)

Yet, despite the challenges, the US military actually fares relatively well in the realm of social media engagement.  For starters, it's unfair for Captain Gilmore to compare Air Mobility Command (AMC) with Coca-Cola itself.  First, because AMC simply will never have the international recognition that Coca-Cola has.  (It is claimed that "Coca-Cola" is the world's second-most recognizable word, after "okay")  Secondly, because Coca-Cola can not achieve its primary objective (sales) without advertising, whereas AMC can.

A more fair comparison might be made between the US Air Force itself and Coca-Cola.  Using scores from Klout, the standard for measuring online influence, the US Air Force fares relatively well, with a score of 82, compared to Coca-Cola's 91.  (Klout is a social media measuring tool which, much like Coca-Cola, uses a formula which few seem to understand)

One problem is that social media influence varies greatly throughout the US Armed Forces.  It's disappointing that Captain Gilmore's experience with AMC was poor.  It's worth noting, however, that other agencies leverage social media very well.  For instance, Admiral James Stavridis alone has over 10,000 Facebook likes--well more than AMC's 1,800.  And while Captain Gilmore decries the poor showing from AMC's social media accounts during the Haitian earthquake of 2010, it's worth noting that other organizations, such as the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division and the USNS Comfort had vigorous social media campaigns.  

It's important to make social media engagement a team effort--unit public affairs shops should feel free to solicit articles, pictures, and video from anyone within their command.

Finally, it's worth noting that social media engagement can have its limitations, not the least of which is a "selection bias".  Of the 51 million Facebook users who "like" Coca-Cola, how many of them were already dedicated consumers?  Do we know that Coca-Cola's social media strategy is persuading the undecided to purchase Coca-Cola?

As I will explore in a future article, social media has amazing potential.  And oddly enough, it's the US military which has moved to the forefront of this phenomenon.  For anyone in an organization without an effective strategy, I recommend working within your chain of command to "improve your foxhole".  

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Tags : disruptive thinkers, disruptive thinking, innovation, social media, strategic communications

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