Whenever new students come to the Air National Guard's training and education center in East Tennessee (very often), I hear faculty and leadership talking with them about dos and don’ts while on campus. They want to set expectations, they want newcomers to be successful, and they want them to get the most out of their experience. I have a role as a public affairs briefer, despite not teaching anything in the classroom. How will their stories unfold here? How will their actions in the community and with their cell phone cameras and social media while TDY become something more to me than a potential career-ending, wrong decision?
So when the staff decided to encourage tagging photos for the campus’s rolling digital displays, my PA mind immediately cried foul. Why invite trouble? But they insisted. So my first response was how can you possibly keep such visitors' telephone photos of operations from public release? The solutions, to me, needed some scrutiny.
But then I thought of the fun I have as a military photographer, or how much I enjoyed sharing a particular story on a service member that they told me through an interview and portrait. Not all information shared is terrible. Photography, news and social information help the services. It just must go to the commander’s release authority first.
An oft-used motto in the public affairs realm goes: “Maximum disclosure, minimum delay.” And that still rings true. That says, “Information is important.” Sharing both the good and the bad news also builds trust. Inside and outside the security gates, Airmen, families, communities, elected officials, allies, and enemies alike should be aware of and understand the United States military. There is no other capability comparable on this planet today or in our history.
Still, one part of my job as a public affairs manager is to make sure that information publically released does not adversely affect the nation’s security nor threaten the safety, security, or privacy of personnel. So as new ways of sharing our stories become available, if not by the hour, I‘m challenged to make others aware of how we handle information in our professional and private lives.
Pause, put your best face forward in your decisions to use social media when in uniform.
First, know your public affairs shop.
There’s a bit of a secret among successful units, leaders, and Airmen -- military journalists, photographers, and broadcasters are mission and career enablers. They make you, and your Airmen, stand out as exceptional people, doing amazing things. They also help you see when that outside voice or those public actions could be damaging. You could think of it as being a rock star, with a personal communication team, which makes you shine. Why wouldn’t you use that? Rock on, Air Force!
Second, know the tool.
So you download the latest social media app. All your friends and family are using it. But did you honestly consider it from a military perspective? Maybe adding dog ears and a pig nose on your face is just so funny that you did not think if they belong in your official photos? Would you wear bunny ears around town while in uniform? I hope not. Do you know where that streaming video you took joking around during operations or at a promotion ceremony will go? Do you have control of it? These are potentially viral, career-killer lessons, which some have learned the hard way. Just like in safety, PAUSE, and think over the situation before you record. Your social media could also contain information that you’re not trained to look for, that puts the nation, your unit and service members at risk.
Third, know who benefits.
You just bought that new lawnmower, but the carburetor broke. The patriotic manufacture said it would not only fix it, but it will send you the more expensive model if you post a public selfie sitting on it in your battle uniform. Better check with your JAG and PA shops, as they will tell you about ethics violations that include profiting from endorsements and perceived endorsements by representing the government. It’s pretty serious stuff, like a demotion, UCMJ, imprisonment, and kicked out of the service kind. Who mows their lawn in uniform anyway?
Last, think hashtag #knowyourpolicy
Hashtags can be an excellent way to share an experience and tell a group story online. But did you check with the PA office before you asked everyone in the official operation or the public event to send phone photos to #itsoutthere. What other organizations affiliate themselves with your new hashtag? Does everyone have public or privately accessible social media accounts? Do you know the local commander's Release of Public Information policy? Yeah, you should know all of that first. The PA office can help you out; they might even give you the best #knowyourmil to use and keep an eye on it for you.