Why the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs tweets

Wednesday - 5/19/2010, 2:39pm EDT

U.S. Navy Capt. John Kirby, Special Assistant for Public Affairs, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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If you didn't already know, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a Twitter account (@thejointstaff) and a Facebook page.

He's also got a Flickr account, an RSS feed and a YouTube channel, if you're interested.

The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has jumped into the Gov 2.0 pool, and U.S. Navy Capt. John Kirby, the Chairman's Special Assistant for Public Affairs, explains why.

"We jumped into the social media world with two feet and really fast because the Chairman really wanted us to do this."

So, they started with a Twitter account, but quickly discovered that opening a social media account and using it properly are two different things.

"We just didn't understand what we were doing. He sends us tweets and all of that was good, but we didn't really know what a re-tweet was and we didn't know how important followers were. . . . On the heels of that, we jumped into Facebook, but didn't really understand that. We just knew that it was out there and that people were using it."

Trial and error is often part of the 2.0 process, and Kirby said experience with both Twitter and Facebook has made the Office of the Joint Chiefs realize that they need to be better organized and that it is actually worth the effort.

"We believe, and the Chairman agrees, that social media is fast becoming mainstream media. It's {quickly} becoming a prime vehicle for not only the transmission of ideas, but the conversation of ideas. We just wanted to have a little bit more of an organized approach."

Most of the time, the tweets are actually from Adm. Mullen himself, but Kirby says there are instances where the Chairman just can't get to a computer and has to dictate his tweets.

Some might ask why the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs thinks tweeting is important, and Kirby says many of the men and women who are in the armed forces are younger and use Twitter to talk to each other.

"[Adm. Mullen] would go out to do these all-hands calls -- town halls with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout the United States -- and they would bring it up to him. 'Why aren't you on Facebook? We've looked at your website and it's not all that modern'. He asked how they communicate and they started talking about Twitter. He didn't know what Twitter was -- I had to go home and ask my teenage son. So, the two of us, after a few of these trips, we [both] said, 'There's something here'."

So, Adm. Mullen now has a Twitter account. Kirby explains that it is a constant learning process. They've only been doing this for a few months and have already learned a great deal about what 2.0 practices are effective and which ones aren't.

Some of the goals of using 2.0 involve more interaction between the Joint Chiefs, the troops and the general public. Part of the problem, though, is that Adm. Mullen can't respond to every tweet or Facebook post. There just isn't time.

Plus, there's that whole security thing.

"People don't understand, I think, the role of the Chairman. He has two principle jobs: One is that he's the principle military advisor to the President and to the Secretary of Defense. That's a private role. He doesn't discuss his advice to the President in public. That's the unseen job that he does. But, the more visible job is, he is the personal representative of the 2.2 million men and women in our armed forces. His job is to represent, to the national leadership, their interests, their concerns, their issues -- but also to the American people the military that they're funding."

Kirby says, when it comes to this second area, communication via 2.0 tools isn't just something they like to do. It's kind of part of their job in the 21st century.

So, now that they've been doing this for a couple of months, what can they tell other agencies who might want to try talking to the public with Facebook and Twitter?

"You really have to commit manpower and resources to it. Because the Chairman does have such limited time, he can't monitor it all all the time. He does get on their, obviously, himself, but . . . Every month we do analytics for him. We run metrics . . . and a guy who works for me who does that full time. . . . We've [also] learned that you have to factor in basically everything that you're doing. For instance, when we go overseas or [Adm. Mullen] travels to a base -- before he even leaves, we discuss the social media aspects that we need to put into play. . . . What do we think he needs to be tweeting about on this trip? We'll make recommendations. Obviously it's up to him . . . [but] we think about the social media aspects of everything he's doing before he does it so that we have at least a plan in our head about how we want it to play out."