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Can government and social media mix?

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5 July 2010 15:36

Peter Leahy's post includes a now familiar complaint about the Defence Department's handling of public relations and media access in Afghanistan. This is also a routine criticism from the Australian media, and it will be interesting to see if it is made again in tonight's Four Corners story about Australia's role in the Afghan war, by one of our finest journalists, Chris Masters.

In this context, note that the British Defence Ministry is giving its military personnel in Afghanistan a bit of latitude with the use of social media by launching a new blogging initiative. A spokesman is quoted as saying:

This is a first for the British forces. Servicemen and women have been blogging for years of course privately on personal pages, but we have never provided the platform to bring all those blogs together before.

Translation: they're going to do it anyway, so they may as well do it from inside the tent; then we at least have a chance to contain any damage.

That's cynical but also wise. When it comes to public relations, the bureaucratic instinct is to seek control. But that's simply not a practical response in the information age. So the MoD has decided to reduce the risk of dangerous or embarrassing disclosures by bringing their bloggers into the fold.

I say 'reduce', rather than 'eliminate', because even if these milbloggers have to run their stuff by a commanding officer, there's still a higher risk that mistakes will be made. When you increase the number of information outlets, and you have perhaps only one level of supervision for each outlet, the chances of a stuff-up are going to increase.

So the really hard thing bureaucracies have to do when they embrace social media is to (a) increase their tolerance for mistakes and (b) improve their ability to bounce back from them. Ultimately, that requires signals from the most senior levels (a minister, if we're talking about a government department) that the bureaucratic control instinct won't kick in when such a mistake inevitably occurs.

If one of these British milbloggers inadvertently leaks sensitive operational information or says something offensive about the locals, and it gets picked up by the press, look for the response from London. Inevitably, the temptation will be to shut these blogs down so that it never happens again. But that would be precisely the wrong move, and that is why, to cope with such incidents, it is important to put procedures in place while heads are cool.

Photo by Flickr user DeclanTM, used under a Creative Commons license.

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