Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tragic News Demands Marine Corps Social Media Leadership, Not Retreat

Marines pay their final respects to Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, a dog handler and mortarman who served with Weapons Company, 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, during a memorial service, April 22. Tarwoe was killed in action during a dismounted patrol in Helmand province's Marjah district, April 12. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez)
Moments after I posted my sympathies about the loss of two Marines in Afghanistan on their unit's Facebook page, it was gone. Deleted. Arbitrarily removed as a violation by their public affairs office.

The Department of Defense had published a release about them, but the unit rarely mentioned combat casualties on their page.

One of the public affairs Marines with Regional Command Southwest scolded me in a private message and said he took it down. What were the reasons? Did it violate any of the official terms of use of military social media sites?

“Frankly, it does because we say it does... it read as pointless, shallow and unprofessional.” the staff noncommissioned officer said.

I tried to parse that exchange with the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said we must be seen as the good guys “... (not by) some slick PR campaign or by trying to out-propagandize al-Qaeda, but rather through the steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time.”

A base level of transparency and honesty must be kept in order to remain a source of information for both our troops and the public.

That line is challenged most often in the case of Marines killed in the line of duty. It is not a bad news story, but is an unfortunate reality of a nation in the midst of a decade-long war. Our nature in the military is to keep our darkest moments to ourselves, but if we wish to establish a foothold in this social space, we must accept that those habits need change. A unit may lose a Marine, but the nation can and should mourn that loss.

This is a place much different from the one our leaders were brought into. Twenty-some years ago when they were commissioned, the internet did not exist. Reporters came on base for a story now and then, but the military was not engaged in long wars. We weren’t the center of attention.

Now, our president shares his thoughts in 140 character bursts. The sergeant major of the Army responds directly to soldiers’ questions online.The Arab Spring was organized and reported on the smart phones and laptops of a young, connected class of citizens.

If we accept that social media is a tool commanders should embrace like any other, then we also owe it to ourselves to consider how we are using it.

A snapshot of recent Facebook posts shows that the 200 Marine commands on Facebook are reaching out to many different audiences: Earn an associates degree in TV repair at the base education center. US Marines train with Filipinos. Female officers will attend infantry school. There's a joke about the “Army survival manual” page one: call in the Marines. Afghans are taught explosive ordnance removal. And don't miss the wine tasting Friday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the graduating class at West Point last year about the dangers of not being as open as possible with the American people. A point put into executive order by the president.

“We in uniform do not have the luxury anymore of assuming that our fellow citizens understand it the same way ... This is important, because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them,” Mullen said.

Social media allows us to tell our own story quicker than ever before and unfiltered by any journalist’s pen. It is the most revolutionary concept in communications, and the way we go about communicating death will prove to the public how serious we are about being a part of this new era. We must change not only for the sake of honesty regarding the costs of war but to recognize brave men and women, honor them, and let their friends and families know that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.

On April 11, two Marine pilots with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit died in a training accident in Morocco. Shortly after, Headquarters Marine Corps' Marines Facebook page offered a short status update on the situation. The names hadn’t been released, but the few details that were available were published. They made it clear: we’re the source for information – even sad information.

Meanwhile, the 24th MEU took its Facebook page offline.

In the days after the accident as the names of the Marines were released, Headquarters Marine Corps again was in front sharing that info while the MEU page had disappeared. They eventually came back online and offered this explanation: “We unpublished our page out of respect for the proper release of information to the families that lost a Marine.”

I reached out to Tech. Sgt. Jared Marquis, Content Management Course instructor at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Md., for a response on this approach. He explained, “Shutting down a Facebook (page) during this time frame is not going to stop the conversation from happening. The only thing it does, in my opinion, is limit the ability of the (public affairs) office or unit to educate people on the importance of waiting until the official release. It also eliminates the ability to push out key messages. The conversation is going to take place because the audience shares more than the unit Facebook. It will happen person to person, or in other groups … The problem with this is that now the (public affairs) office or unit is no longer even involved in the conversation and has no rumor control or education options. In addition, the unit runs the risk of losing audience members. If people feel they can get information, even incorrect information, somewhere else, they will.”

Did the postings by HQMC show a lack of respect for the proper release of information to the families that lost a Marine? Or did HQMC strengthen their role as a news source while the MEU forfeited some of its own credibility?

The video story about the crash has been seen more than 8,000 times and the posts about the crash on their Facebook wall were some of the most popular posts of the week. For the MEU, we can look back at a post from a few weeks prior to measure the effect of their actions.

On March 27, just as they were heading off on deployment, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit began warning its 17,000 Facebook fans that they were considering taking down the page. The command cited comments as a security concern. They promised if the page was taken down to continue to work with traditional media to provide information about their Marines to the world back home. Mothers and spouses responded to the announcement begging the command to keep this line of communication open.

‎One poster wrote, “I am feeling a bit of anxiety as the tears run done (sic) my cheeks at the thought of you canceling this page.” Another pleaded, “Please be considerate of others this is their only way for information of their loved ones.”

Their audience was telling them they did not want to use traditional media to follow the Marines, and they were upset at the very suggestion of such an old idea.

The issue of military deaths and Facebook is understandably difficult because of that paradigm shift. A generation ago memorial services were closed affairs, safe behind the base gates. Leaders were mentored by a group who remembered Vietnam as a war spoiled by the media’s desire to use death as a “gotcha” story on the nightly news.

Once we joined the social space we accepted some basic ground rules. One of which is that honest and open communication is the duty of the company and the right of the consumer. Today’s generation is inherently more transparent in actions and expectations.

Tragic news does not require us to avoid the conversation but begs us to lead it. Headquarters Marine Corps has demonstrated the success of that thinking by attracting the largest audience of any military branch. Embracing a policy of transparency and being willing to engage and lead the discussion on one of our most sensitive topics is vital to our credibility as a military institution. If we do that, we can tell the world we take care of our own even on their worst days, and we can show the dedication Marines have to gear up and head out on the next patrol.

EDIT, Thursday May 26, 9:04 p.m.: this post has been edited to include the full name and title of the DINFOS instructor quoted.


This piece has been republished in Social Media Today.

Randy Clinton is an active-duty Marine. He is a public affairs specialist and manages the social media site for his unit. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corps.

60 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Thoughtful and well-written, Randy, thank you for starting what should be an interesting discussion.

    So much confusion on what is OpSec vs what is common sense. If whatever incident or tragedy is reported on mainstream news, does de-listing a FB page means the incident never happened? Of course not, and then the military looks foolish for over-reacting.

    One wonders about the 24th MEU's warning about taking down their FB page; surely the PAO officers (who I know to be thoroughly straight-forward and professional) can be trusted not to release sensitive information? Perhaps this was not a PAO decision.

    It's interesting to think that the locals can see, sail next to, and photograph the USS Iwo Jima and accompanying ships as they sit in various foreign harbors, but the parents, spouses, and families can be denied the same news in the name of 'OpSec.' How silly.

    Similar to Randy's incident where the RC SW SNCO arbitrarily deleted the FB post expressing condolences to the two Marines, it seems that OpSec has been reduced to “...Frankly, it does because we say it does... it read as pointless, shallow and unprofessional.” the staff non-commissioned officer said." Since when is opsec subject to a value judgement of someone's writing style?

    But maybe that's the issue. Social media - FB, Twitter, etc, are not simply a new medium for pushing the same tired press release. An adroit use of social media means understanding that FB, Twitter users are both interactive and vocal, and addressing them accordingly.

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    1. Thanks for the nice words Andrew.

      I think the worst thing we can do is look only to PAOs for answers on how their unit practices social media. Unit PAOs report to the unit commander, not to a higher headquarters PAO. Their evaluations are written by combat commanders.

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    2. That's the problem. Unit commanders don't understand the difference between traditional press releases and FB; they don;t understand how and why a decision to pull a FB page goes viral and takes on a life of it's own.

      Delete
  3. The SNCO running the RCSW page who Randy left unnamed stated, "Are you kidding me? I said it. 910-451-7200. You have a problem? Call me. Sorry, we didn't have a social media guru on our last deployment...they were all in non-deployable billets, as it turns out. Too bad, I really could have used someone telling me how to do my job through passive aggressive FB posts! What really sucks though is now I have to somehow pull this knife out of my back, turns out I was quoted out of context by a friend as part of some would-be journalism piece. Good thing I think deleting memorial posts arbitrarily is a good idea like it says in the Marine Corps Gazette Blog. There's no way at all I would have previously told this poster that his recent antics and attempts to change the MOS by posting to our FB page "read as pointless, shallow and unprofessional."

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    1. Airing dirty laundry gents.

      Let it alone.

      Instead look at the points made, not the actions that led to them. Nothing can be done about that now, rather we can only look at how we will proceed.

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    2. It is not airing dirty laundry if SSgt. Jeremy Ross wanted it publicly known.

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    3. Point missed. Find another venue.

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    4. I don't see what posting this information here accomplishes. However, I do think Mr. Ross needs to get over himself and the chip on his shoulder. This isn't about him; it's about the Marine Corps adapting its PA policies and procedures to embrace the new communication paradigm, which requires greater transparency among our governmental institutions and a more extensive public discourse.

      So what if one Marine PA professional had a knee-jerk reaction after misinterpreting the tone and intent of a post about casualties from his unit. Mistakes happen. That's ok. We learn from them and move on. Sgt. Clinton's blog post is obviously meant to bolster the dialogue among Marine leaders and PA professionals. That's a good thing for our Corps, the Department of Defense and our country as a whole. Let's not derail his effort with petty grudges and attempts to demonize a low-level leader for simple mistake. After all, that's why we're having this conversation -- so Marines in the PA field don't retreat and delete because they don't like what's being said.

      Always forward; never back. That's the Marine Corps way.

      Delete
  4. Randy,
    I hope that the PAOs read this. As an adviser to the commander they should be proponents of the use of social media to tell the command's story and keep the right information flowing. Admiral Mullen had a social media engagement plan several years back. http://www.mca-marines.org/files/Chairman%27s%20Social%20Media%20Strategy.pdf
    Those are interesting metrics of success. He was trying to gain page views and followers and we are trying to make social media go away.
    Col John Keenan USMC (Ret)

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    1. Sir,
      It was a pleasure to share this here.

      Delete
  5. Very good article by Sgt. Clinton. Demonstrates the power of social media. Like it or not, it is a force to be dealt with. I believe we are better served participating honestly. We have nothing to hide. Candidly I suspect the MEU lawyers got involved.

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  6. The world is already suspect of govt/military. It hurts our credibility that much more when things like this happen. Great blog, Marine.

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  7. It's funny cause all of you public affairs Marines think you know the solution to EVERYTHING.

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    1. This is for adults. Go back to your XBox.

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    2. This is for adults. Go back to your Xbox.

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    3. Of course he had an agenda Mr. Anonymous. It's just mind boggling that you could read the entire article and miss what his agenda actually is.

      This is not an attack on a Marine or anyone in specific, it's an article meant to spur discussion of something that needs to be talked about with the PA community.

      You say commanders only care about their jobs and reputation? Fine, tell me why you think that, back your argument up with facts and then offer a counter to Randy's article. Or you could just continue to troll anonymously and contribute nothing to the discussion besides making yourself feel better for your juvenile retorts. Either way, the discussion that needs to happen is being held at PA shops throughout the Corps, and Randy's article is an influence for that. So in that respect at least, this discussion has already proven to be more valuable than a senseless Xbox argument.

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    4. Well I guess that won't work very well since Mr. Anonymous has been removed.

      Delete
  9. With respect to Col Keenan, it's commanders who need to be persuaded, not PAO's. Randy's observations are on target and well-founded in modern communication theory. The vast majority of PA professionals are advocates for transparency, and I can speak with personal experience regarding 24MEU's social media presence -- which has largely been extremely progressive. They were one of the first MEU's with a Facebook page, and they have used it very effectively.

    The trouble is that many commanders remain uncomfortable with social media, particularly in regard to dealing with casualties. The MV-22 crash was a learning experience, and I have confidence the MEU will continue to improve its efforts. The Facebook post regarding the potential for taking the page down was, in part, a response to a lengthy presentation developed by HQMC OPSEC wherein the 24MEU was attacked by cubicle rangers a presenting a 'security risk.' That was all nonsense, but it did cause enough concern on the command deck that the MEU PA shop felt it was important to remind their fans that their interaction on Facebook could stand to place the platform at risk. Perhaps it could have been handled better, but when it comes to SM, we're all still learning. Some are just better students than others.

    I can't speak to the RCSW issue, but I know that kind of thing still happens. The point here is that there is SM guidance that helps guide unit activity, and PAO's need to walk the dog with their commanders. I've taught commanders about communication, and a key point is that effective communication requires experimentation. You try different forms, then iterate on what works. That's the way nature works -- it's evolution. But experimentation presents risk, and commanders are groomed to mitigate risk. "Turn it off" is a very attractive mitigating action. And in today's environment, I can promise you that when the PAO argues for transparency, there are at least six other members of the principal staff arguing against it.

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  10. Bold. Raw.
    I like it.
    The nature of this new media environment is the critical and primary link to any stakeholder engagement strategy...whether it is hyper-local communication or strategic communication.
    He gets it.

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  11. Author of this article, along with many of the commenters, had a personal vendetta not transparent to the average reader. This article, among many other actions spawned from the author among others publicly criticizing and demeaning the work of a junior Marine, who happened to be deployed to RCSW at the time, on a Facebook group, and the author was verbally shredded. This article would have stood alone nicely without the reference to RCSW, but the author felt the need to take another personal stab because of a bruised ego.

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    1. so are you defending the actions of RCSW as described in the piece?

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    2. No. Just calling him out for the entire backstory. If it was an average Facebook user who had posted the KIA condolences/comments, that is one thing. Being that it was a scorned PAO Marine-turned-Blue Falcon, that is a whole other story that deserves to be put into context.

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    3. so the unit only deletes condolence comments from people it doesn't like?

      Delete
    4. No the unit knew the Marine's motive, very ungenuine.

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    5. so the unit only deletes comments when it believes the motives were not genuine?

      must be a hard thing to judge from a world away. Since I assume you are with the unit. How do you go about judging the motives of the people who post on your facebook site? What kind of SOP do you create for judging whether a Marine is posting out of sincerity or for some nefarious reasons?

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    6. Not SOP, just common sense. This blog, along with the other social media tactics, is akin to a scorned employee attempting to get back at his former employer by "whistleblowing" or revealing unfavorable practices, while trying to boost his own resume and portfolio.

      Delete
    7. If it is a personal vendetta, can you shed some light on this subject. You obviously know something more than the rest of us. So are you hiding behind the Anonymous tag because you were part of the issue, close to the issue, or just making some stuff up out of your own personal vendetta. I'll stay anonymous for now as well. Since that seems to be the upstanding way in which people criticize or question each other here.

      Delete
    8. You anonymous folks seem to want to steer this conversation by framing Sgt. Clinton and anyone who agrees with him as unpatriotic self-serving subversives who wish to embolden our enemies and cause America to lose the war. That frame is ridiculous, and I think it speaks volumes about your inability to actually contribute something substantive to the discourse here.

      Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and those of you who are on the offensive with the ad hominem attacks actually do have sound arguments to support a view that opposes Sgt. Clinton's. If that's the case, maybe those of you who are flinging shit and attempting to assassinate the character of a damn fine NCO should grab your balls and make an argument for or against the policy Sgt. Clinton has proposed instead of suggesting that his motives are self-serving.

      Here are some questions to get you started: Do you or do you not believe PA Marines have a responsibility to suppress SM postings about casualties? If you do not believe that, to what extent should PA units cover stories about and post on SM about casualties? What are the pros/cons of covering/posting about casualties?

      Delete
  12. Hey Anonymous, why don't you own your allegations by not posting anonymously. Mmmm-k?

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  14. I have personal knowledge of senior PA leaders who have rotated in and out of RCSW billets and have also been complicit in the practice Sgt. Clinton has brought to light in this post. I mention this only to point out that it's actually not always just the commanders who are inclined to retreat to the comfort of the delete button or to avoid posting about our KIAs altogether because they see it as "empowering the enemy" or whatever other vague "OPSEC" rationale they can use to justify their archaic, dishonest and intellectually lazy approach to communications doctrine.

    As I see it, those PA leaders need to evolve or retire.

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  15. Not sure why there is an issue about Social Media sites. The site manager has the right to make any choice about what is posted on his site. If a Company, Battalion or Regimental commanding officer is the owner/manager of a site he ca do whatever he wants.
    Social Media is not a right.

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  16. seems like Randy hit a nerve with this piece. Lots of personal attacks against him in the comments, but none are actually refuting his conclusions.

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  17. Is Sgt. Clinton still active-duty? If so he needs to look out for an Article 134.

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    1. could you specify what part of the article would merit a charge sheet?

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    2. Exactly what charges could be brought up based on this post?

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  18. I personally think we are going to far with this 'openness' policy. While it might be stressful for friends and family to be ill-informed about what is going on, I think it's mission critical. I remember my first mission outside the wire when we were given the speech. There was one thing (aside from the rediculous Geneva Convention laws) that stood out. Civs preferred to ride in our convoys because they knew that if they ride with us, their survival percentage shot up dramatically. Not only did it have to do with our training, but the mystifying attributes we left on our enemy. Never leave a man behind. Not only supports our Brotherhood, but the enemy would never know if they injured or killed us.... Our Enemy will never truly be able to observe us (Keyword SALUTE, haha)
    If you think back in history, this secrecy has been pivital within many cultures. It's made them seem like untouchable Gods, and struck fear in their enemies. In fact the Egyptions had their Marines they called "The Immortals".
    Now with technology and the Media, plastering the death toll, we are less and less being feared as an untouchable force to be reckoned with, but more as merely men. Our enemies get braver. Public disclosure is a mess. And it's the Media leading the way with the ability to sway public opinion with this disclosure, also.
    We should never let on to enough information where Mass Media can grab on to it, and sensationalize it so they can make more money. You must remember that Civs are like children in the dark. And they only know what they see on TV, or read. They never hear about the whole story, and even if they did, they could never understand (or want to -Or they wouldn't be safe at home).
    -Semper Fi

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    1. the immortals were Persian

      Delete
    2. Just one quick point here...if your job is to communicate, and as you say people aren't hearing about the "whole story," well then doesn't that responsibility fall to those charged to communicate on behalf of the Marine Corps? I, nor should any communicator IMO, do not except your premiss. Rather than look at communication throughout the principles of freedom of information, you look at it through a lens of "protection." As if, some how dishonesty and half truths will protect the Marine Corps from....what? An American public (our biggest key audience) will not support a dishonest Marine Corps precisely because it goes against our Corps values.

      Semper....

      Scott Schmidt
      (The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent or reflect the views of the Marine Corps, its units or any DoD or government organization.)

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  19. Why is Marine Corps Gazette publishing this crap from POGs?

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    2. What other blog did he write?

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  21. I'm curious as to why so many posters remain Anonymous here. Why are so few people willing to stand by their comments? The original writer wasn't.
    And to those who don't want to see this "crap" posted, write something better and more insightful that addresses a real concern in the world of public communication or any other subject for that matter.

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    1. It's not that we're hiding our identity from Clinton. We're hiding it from people who matter, like our bosses.

      Delete
  22. This post has pointed to a disagreement in Marine PA practice. Senior military public affairs leaders have left positive comments on this thread, using their names. A band of anonymous (assumed) Marines have also chimed in with personal attacks against the author but not refuting anything in the piece.

    Logic and leadership seem to fall on the side of the author.

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  23. "One of the public affairs Marines with Regional Command Southwest scolded me in a private message and said he took it down."

    Is this what my beloved Marine Corps has become? A bunch of namsy pansy social media sissies hiding behind their computers?

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  24. Cliff W. GilmoreMay 1, 2012 at 8:33 PM

    A few words to the wise:

    (1) If you have to hide what you say from your bosses (or potential future bosses), odds are good you shouldn't utter them in a public forum;

    (2) If you think posting as "anonymous" prevents your bosses (or potential future bosses) from sussing out who you are, and assessing your professionalism and personal integrity, you may not fully appreciate the workings of communication as human interaction;

    (3) If you think posting as "anonymous" is not directly associated with professionalism and personal integrity, you may not fully appreciate the concepts of professionalism and personal integrity -- which, as I recall, are a core tenets of our Corps.

    In service I remain,

    Semper Fidelis!
    Cliff W. Gilmore
    A Leader of Marines
    (These opinions are my own)

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    1. Are you trying to say I don't have integrity if I post anonymous?
      What if people post anonymous to avoid conflict? Is that so wrong?
      Finally, posting anonymous does not define who I am and what my values are.

      Delete
  25. Great piece that has sparked a much needed conversation within the Public Affairs field as well as the Marine Corps as a whole when it comes to communication to those we are accountable to - the American people. This article points out a few obvious principles of public communication, to include; timeliness, accuracy, freedom of information and most importantly honesty. All these things, and more, make up our credibility. Adhering to them is not optional and we can not selectively decide which ones to follow at which time. Each one must be followed every time. In my opinion, communicators walk a fine line between communication and propaganda when they sacrifice the integrity of any of the above principles in order to protect the image of the Corps or the perception of that image.

    For some context, i think it would be helpful for anyone interested to review the HQMC policy on Social Media. There is an extensive handbook that was published about a year ago.

    http://marines.dodlive.mil/social-media/

    Semper....

    Scott Schmidt
    (The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent or reflect the views of the Marine Corps, its units or any DoD or government organization.)

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  27. This is pretty embarrassing to your MOS and your peers. Mission accomplished. I wonder if the infantry, or any other MOS for that matter, criticizes/airs dirty laundry about their profession and their peers publicly through the interwebz.

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    1. Here are links to three other articles written for the Marine Gazette by active duty Marines suggesting changes or addressing concerns they see within their field or the Marine Corps.

      The Gazette also has an annual boldness and daring award for those "that challenge conventional wisdom by proposing change to a current Marine Corps directive, policy, custom, or practice."
      http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/majgen-harold-w-chase-prize-essay-contest

      "Bridging the Gap", July 2008
      By GySgt Richard Choquette
      http://www.marinecorpsgazette-digital.com/marinecorpsgazette/200807/?pg=24&pm=1&u1=friend

      "Tattoos and Leadership Traits", December 2007
      By Sgt Kelly P. Sloan
      http://www.marinecorpsgazette-digital.com/marinecorpsgazette/200712/?pg=64&pm=1&u1=friend

      "F-35B Needs a Plan B",
      By Maj Christopher J. Cannon
      http://www.marinecorpsgazette-digital.com/marinecorpsgazette/201109/?pg=56&pm=1&u1=friend
      http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/f%E2%80%9335b-needs-plan-b

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  28. Fantastic read. How can I get this in front of the eyes of your senior enlisted folk? Would they appreciate this as much as I did?

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