Jul 21, 2010

Selling the Impact of the Iraqi Troop Surge through Blogger Relations


On January 2007, US President George W. Bush deployed more than 20,000 soldiers, five additional brigades, and the extended the tour of Army and Marine troops in Iraq.

The decision, which White House Press Secretary Tony Snow referred to as “a new way forward in Iraq” became known simply as “The Surge” and marked a significant change in strategy in Iraq.   The major element of the strategy was a change in focus for the US military “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security.” The idea was to clean up the streets, so the Iraqi police stood a better chance of maintaining the peace.

Achieving this mission would mean sending service members straight into the belly of the beast.  They’d have to clear some of the most dangerous hot beds of insurgency in Iraq, at a time when press had become ambivalent about the Multi National Forces’s prospects for peace.

The public affairs strategy of embedding journalists, which was created by Rear Admiral TL McCreary, had for the most part worked quite well.  The reporters developed a sense of camaraderie and loyalty with the troops they were embedded with, and told the story the Defense Department wanted told.

But that changed when the situation in Iraq stabilized and reporters could travel abound Bagdad on their own and interact with the locals, without needing the protection of the troops.   Wars are messy.  And the reporters saw firsthand the damage and hardships that the US-led incursion inflicted upon the Iraqi people.

This is the story of how a Senior  Strategist for Emerging Media at the US  Dept. of Defense named Jack Holt counterbalanced the tide of negative public opinion against the new strategy using not much more than conference calls and blogger outreach.  It’s also the story of how social media engagement was initially institutionalized at the worlds ultimate command and control organization: the U.S. Armed Forces.

In 2006, DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review included a strategic communications road map that stressed the need to find a way to communicate in a 24/7 new media environment.  For the first time, Holt had a reason to pursue social media communications in an official capacity.  He started to dig in, study and engage with the self-professed military blogosphere.  And he wanted to know first how the Defense Dept. could help them.

Almost unanimously, the mil bloggers came back with two requests.  They wanted access to service members down range and they wanted  information to link to online.  He also saw that those bloggers who were rising to the top were also the ones with the best sources, the strongest arguments and the most powerful ideas.

Since the Defense Dept. is the leading source for news and information about the military, they tried first to embed bloggers down range with units that were deploying.  But that was complicated, took time and because so many bloggers are hobbyists, they don’t have the luxury of quitting their day job to pursue their interests.  For many of the top mil bloggers, blogging was a personal communications outlet, rather than a source of income.

The Iraqi troops surge came at when the Defense Department was experiencing increased difficulty getting their information out through the news media.  General David Petraeus has been accepted by Congress as the commissioned leader in Iraq.   He had just written his Counter Insurgency Operations Manual and was ready to try a fresh approach to winning the war in Iraq at a time when the American people were starting to become war weary.

Engaging with the mil blogosphere became a more reliable way to get information out publicly, because the mainstream media was fickle and had a short attention span.  The military bloggers were interested, cared passionately about the outcome of the conflict and wound up playing a crucial role helping people understand exactly what was happening in Iraq.

In February 2007, one of the most intense firefights of the Iraqi War and first major combat operation to occur under the change of strategy was captured by field combat cameramen.  The live footage of the three day Battle on Haifa was riveting, and the Multi National Forces Headquarters decided to declassify the footage and release it to the television news media as proof that the surge was yielding positive results.

The graphic combat footage of the Battle of Haifa Street made the evening news cycles in the US and some of the morning shows, and was dropped from rotation by 10am the following day as the press rushed to cover the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

US Army Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, who was the spokesman for the Multi National Forces at that time,  didn’t understand why gripping footage depicting such a critical event could be so easily dismissed by the news media.

As an infantryman, his perception was that they’d done everything right.  He laid out his range stakes and  set-up up his sector of fire.  Why weren’t they hitting anything?  Unsatisfied with the responses he got back from his public affairs staff, he ordered them to do something different.

The first major battle marking after the surge had been won and people needed to know about it.  And if the news media wasn’t going to tell them, the Multi National Forces needed other options.  His charge aligned up nicely with the 2006 order to find a way to communicate in a 24/7 new media environment. It was at this point that the public affairs staff for the Multi National Forces in Iraq contacted Holt.

They were ready to do whatever it took to tell their story.  They wanted to put up a YouTube channel immediately and start releasing information directly to the public. But like most big organizations, making new things happen at the US Dept. of Defense takes time.

Holt, a DoD vet, well versed in the ways of the bureaucracy inside the department, knew it would be near impossible to get a YouTube channel up tomorrow.  But he had another idea.

He asked the MNF public affairs officers if they thought they could round up some colonels and majors on active duty in Iraq who had been personally involved in the Battle of Haifa Street.  They said they could.  So Holt rounded up a group of military bloggers, set up a conference call and the DoD Blogger Round Table was born.

The Round Table lives on today, and it became a significant event for the 2007-2008 period of the war in Iraq.  “There was more information that actually got into people’s hands that way,” says Holt. “We were always looking for that third-party witness – which had been the whole purpose behind having embedded reporters – but as things normalized after the invasions and the reporters were able to get around town, they were looking at things from different angles.  There were a lot things happening that no one was reporting on.”

Through simple telephone conference calls, bloggers got access to service members living the war day-to-day who told them their stories.  A shift in the public debate started to happen.  At first it was subtle.  But as the Round Table’s persisted, it started to become more dramatic.  The mil bloggers were investing their hearts and souls in informing the world about the progress that was occurring, as a result of the surge.

And Holt got content to park online the the bloggers could link to.  He didn’t rely exclusively on them to get everything that was said on the conference call out there.  His team recorded the call and released it as an MP3, and had the MP3 transcribed and posted it as text as well.  Eventually they developed their own Blogger Round Table website where they hosted all the content.  In one month’s time, they had half a million visitors downloading the files.  They’d struck a nerve.

Through the process, they also saw the mainstream news reporters become more engaged.  Reporters were using the Round Table transcripts to do background preparation and were asking more informed questions.  They were drawing on the Round Table content to educate themselves and cover the war effort on much deeper, more nuanced level.  “It helped us in the press and in the public,” says Holt.

Today, almost all US Military units have badges on their homepages where you can link directly over to their social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.  But it wasn’t always that way.  And were it not for the contributions of Holt and the circumstances that led to his creation of the first Blogger Round Table, set up to help the Multi National Forces in Iraq get their story out about the successful impact of the troops surge, perhaps they still might not be.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Shel Holtz, co-host of the podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report, who interviewed Jack Holtz for an episode on which this blog post is largely based, and grateful to Jack for delivering such a compelling caser study on the origins of social media at the United States Department of Defense.  I intend to include this case study in my Social Media Boot Camp as well.