Social media surfers catch Internet wave

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Even when intended as innocent fun, just because something can be done doesn't always mean it should be.

Budding cadet communicators may want to consider propriety before engaging in today's social media options that are crossing the Internet like a tsunami.

A quick search of increasingly popular social media Web sites will uncover content surely to cause both smiles and raised eyebrows as Air Force leaders of today and yesteryear explore what Academy cadets have produced for the world to see. Air Force officials say content, which many may consider humorous, can quickly cross the line from funny to distasteful.

Recent guidance from Washington is helping ensure Airmen around the globe have a clear picture of what is and isn't acceptable interaction with (or use of) various forms of media.

"The Air Force needs to turn all its Airmen into communicators who combat negative influence of enemy propaganda, misinformation and misrepresentation," reads the booklet "New Media and the Air Force," recently produced by the Air Force Public Affairs Agency Emerging Technology Division.

Misrepresentation of the profession of arms through humorous accounts of life at the Academy may seem insignificant to some, while others might ask, what perception does it give to viewers around the world? That's the question facing today's leaders, who are keeping an eye on popular Web sites like YouTube where keyword searches can reveal much.

"Cadets (and others as well) may need a friendly reminder from time to time that we, via the Internet, globally represent the Academy and the U.S. Air Force," said David Cannon, Academy director of communications. "Any video posted that puts the Academy specifically, or the profession of arms generally, in a questionable light is clearly not prudent behavior. "Furthermore, any online social media format that brings potential discredit upon the Academy and/or the Air Force is at best unprofessional and could conceivably be punishable.

Times have changed and so have the ways the Air Force communicates.

"The days of only public affairs folks being the conduit for Air Force or unit information are over -- the Internet, and in particular, social media or new media Web sites, have taken care of that," Mr. Cannon said. "Sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and the like are instantaneous potential communication challenges. The days of a 24-hour news cycle are gone. The news cycle is now."

How does that affect the information battlespace?

One just needs to look at how groups like al-Qaida use information: they post videos of attacks on U.S. troops immediately. They post videos of their pronouncements immediately. They use the Internet to tell their story, to recruit, to keep a continuous presence of their activities and their goals in front of the world.

"While groups like al-Qaida do not have to abide by any sort of rules or values such as Integrity, Service and Excellence, we do," Mr. Cannon said. "The Air Force's goal is to have 'every Airman serve as its communicator.' We want our Airmen to tell their stories -- collectively, the Air Force story."

One way to do that is through the appropriate social media sites.

Those with Facebook pages, for example, are encouraged to tell their stories, but to do so with appropriateness in mind. 

"This is a great medium to tell the world what a great organization and opportunity the Air Force is," said Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, Academy director of public affairs. "The Academy is full of stories deserving to be told."

The long-term key to success will be finding the perfect blend of traditional and modern communication tools.

"We'll continue to use the traditional means of telling the Academy story: external news media, our speakers' bureau program, advertising, hosting groups and the Academy Spirit, for example," said Mr. Cannon. "We also need to look at leveraging social media to tell our story. The same rules apply: talk about your area of expertise and don't say or post anything that is disparaging to your unit, the Air Force Academy or the Air Force.

Twitter away and tell your story, our story!" 

Guidelines for Social Media Communications:

-- Don't discuss classified or sensitive information.

-- Stay in your lane. If you're an aircraft mechanic, you're well suited to communicate messages about aircraft maintenance. If you are blogging about legal issues, carefully consider your content.

-- Don't lie. Credibility is crucial; without it, no one cares what you have to say.

-- Always identify yourself. It makes your post more creditable.

-- Safety. Videos that get widespread attention or become "viral" feature death-defying stunts or acts. Don't let the desire to get your message across compromise personal safety.

-- Be aware of the image you present. If using a visual medium, don't let your message get overshadowed because the viewer's attention is drawn to your improperly worn uniform or something occurring in the background. The image you present will set the tone for your message and often mean the difference of whether or not people listen to your message. Your tactical representation could have strategic and international consequences for the Air Force and the nation.

-- Be careful of what personal information you divulge, such as addresses, phone numbers or any other information that could aid adversaries.

-- Use common sense. If you wouldn't say it in front of your mother, you probably shouldn't say it on YouTube. Your words and images will go out to thousands, possibly millions, of people around the world and once out there it's out there for good. Your public affairs staff is a source of advice and guidance in this medium. 

For local and Air Force updates, visit: www.af.mil or www.usafa.af.mil.