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Tragic News Demands Marine Corps Social Media Leadership, Not Retreat

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.

This piece was originally publsihed on the Marine Corps Gazette Blog, April 24.

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.

Photo Caption: 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)


Join The Conversation

  • mlazen's picture
    Apr 27 Posted 5 years ago mlazen

    An important rumination on the tension between openness, personal liberty and communications governance in cases where the stakes are as high as can be. Thanks.

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