Uncle Sam Blogs You
The Army Reserve provides content to attract and keep soldiers.
Early this year, the Army Reserve dipped a toe into the blogosphere. The move came well after active-duty soldiers, especially those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and military families and retirees had created a large and lively community of military Web logging. After administratively punishing some soldiers for their blogging, and informally citing others for operational security violations, the Army finally developed a policy governing what soldiers can and cannot do on their blogs in March 2005.
Now, the Reserve is embracing military bloggers as a conduit for news designed to persuade soldiers to lengthen their tours of duty. In January, a handful of military bloggers received variations of an e-mail from Charlie Kondek of Haas MS&L, a Detroit public relations firm. The service hired the company to "test a new outlet for public information," Kondek wrote in his e-mail. "The Army believes that military blogs are a valuable medium for reaching out to soldiers," Kondek added. "The Army plans to offer you and selected bloggers exclusive editorial content on a few issues you're likely to be interested in."
What this "exclusive editorial content" might be wasn't specified, but it wasn't long before bloggers began a spirited, contentious debate on Kondek's e-mail. "I'm not sure I know what to think of this," wrote William M. Arkin on Early Warning, his national and homeland security blog on The Washington Post's Web site. "The 'content' under discussion, an Army public affairs officer tells me, is not the nitty-gritty of deployments and living conditions overseas. It is planned to be an official counter to the perceived unwillingness of the mainstream media to report the 'good news' from Iraq," Arkin reported. His observation spawned a number of posts and ripostes discussing whether the nascent PR effort was ethical, legal, necessary, unnecessary, benign, insidious, part of a plot initiated by the dreaded MSM (mainstream media), a threat to a free press, and a threat to the culture of blogging, among other things.
Kondek declined to answer questions about his e-mail, referring all queries to Lt. Col. Jon Dahms, the chief of recruitment communications for the Army Reserve. According to Dahms, the Reserve's first foray into blogging is part of an effort to attract and keep reservists. "We're trying to communicate that you can still serve in the reserves and have a civilian life and continue to serve the nation proudly," Dahms says. "We look for stories that show this from a variety of sources, and if there's a real good story we can bump up to the national level, we're interested in doing that. We ID those stories and have MS&L make contact with the news media, networks, magazines, to arrange interviews with soldiers. And now we're focusing on military blogs, the ones most frequented by military members."
Dahms says it's too early to know whether the blog outreach has produced results, adding that the Army Reserve doesn't really have a measure of success. "I think we'll look at responses, see how it's received by bloggers based on the buzz it's generating and make the determination from there if it's meeting our needs," he says. "But the key thing is for us to inform soldiers that are serving that the Army Reserve is an option."
Spc. Jason Christopher Hartley, a 14-year veteran of the Army National Guard, is amused that the Army's first foray into the blog world would be via a public relations agency, especially for purposes of retention and recruitment. Hartley started his Web log, justanothersoldier.com, after deploying to Iraq in 2003.
Almost immediately, his commanding officer ordered him to take it down. Hartley complied, and instead mass e-mailed his observations and musings to readers. But in the waning days of his tour, he put his blog back up, and in no time was pulled out of combat and sent back to Fort Drum, N.Y., to face a disciplinary hearing on more than a dozen blog-related charges, including disobeying a direct order, violating operational security and conduct unbecoming a noncommissioned officer. The latter charge, Hartley says, was due to a picture posted to his blog of him sitting on a toilet.
In Hartley's view, the charges against him had less to do with security and protocol concerns and more to do with matters of taste. Hartley's observations were sometimes darkly comic in content and sarcastic in tone. What's so ironic about the new Haas MS&L effort, he says, is that he regularly gets e-mails from young people telling him that justanothersoldier.com has inspired them to join the Army, or asking him for advice about enlisting-which he almost always recommends.
"You don't need to make it all nice-you can give kids the straight poop and say, 'Look, I don't like hurting people but I like combat; I want to be a good person but I like shooting stuff;' and they can process those statements of duality pretty well," he says.
"It's smart that the Army is finally coming around and realizing the people read blogs, but I don't know that they understand how people read them . . . there are a lot of bloggers out there who are already shining examples of having success in the life of a reservist."
But echoing the concern of Arkin and others, the Army isn't just doing blog outreach in the name of recruiting and retention. In a February speech, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed that a special public affairs unit at U.S. Central Command has been active in blog outreach as well.
The three-man unit-whose motto is "Engage"-offers materials written by the military to bloggers and encourages them to link to CENTCOM's Web site. The unit also writes to bloggers to correct or take issue with information it considers incomplete or inaccurate. According to critics such as Christopher Simpson, an intelligence and propaganda scholar at American University, some of CENTCOM's efforts merit further scrutiny and discussion, especially since the bulk of its interaction is with bloggers the command considers favorable. "There is a variety of things the military can promote, but they can't promote partisan politics, particularly on the taxpayers' dime," Simpson says. "Where exactly the line is here seems hazy, and people should look at this closely and debate it."