A Guide to Building a Social Media Strategy

Article 12 min
Build a strong strategy to increase internal and external awareness of your organization's social media policies, boost engagement, gain feedback and monitor public perception. Remember, a good social media strategy is part of a larger communication plan that includes your internal communications. As such, it should fall under or positively impact the commander's overall strategic objectives and/or communication objectives.

A social media strategy sets the tone and rules for the organization on social media. Goal identification and risk mitigation are essential steps in developing your strategy. What is the strategic purpose for the organization or person to be on social media in an official capacity? The goals will help identify the risks. The focus is on aligning the efforts of the digital space with the commander's intent and producing measurable results toward meeting a specific end state (goal). Social media strategy operationalizes our approach to engaging within the digital environment.

Additionally, the organization needs to identify if the goals are rigid or flexible. For most operationally-focused social media platforms, the goals will be rigid. However, many of our units have to blend operations with mission sustainment/growth/etc. Those types of goals are typically flexible.

Public Affairs should know where it wants to go before it gets in and starts the car.

Unlike using social media as a tactic to achieve a specific goal, social media strategy is a broad framework for operations over a long period of time. By focusing on the big picture, social media managers have a robust reference for managing and assessing accounts, posts, audience interaction and more. Social media strategy should be drafted with personnel transition in mind. The strategy should outline workflow and tasks that allow for smooth and seamless personnel transitions.

Social media strategies vary depending on the organization's needs which usually take the form of a document that includes these sections of information: Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. It can be a memorandum-type document or a professional booklet, or a combination of the two. In the end, it is an approved and agreed-upon strategy by leaders that outlines all the insights determined to be relevant and applicable to the external official presence and is shared with key staff stakeholders.

A graphic depicting the four sections of a social media strategy: Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. Within each section are bullets providing key points on what each section entails.
A graphic depicting the four sections of a social media strategy: Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. Within each section are bullets providing key points on what each section entails.
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Consider the following topics and questions to help construct each section of your social media strategy.


Build a foundation for all the other steps in the problem-solving process. A strong strategy is built on research and aims to answer key questions or resolve a communication problem.

Your goals are what the command wants; the policy provides the guidelines to enable that. The DoD recently implemented the first DoD-wide policy, Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 5400.17 Official Use Of Social Media for Public Affairs Purposes. Social media managers primarily need to educate themselves rather than try to "reinvent the wheel" by creating substantial local policy. The policy states that there should be some sort of command approval to begin this process. DoDI 5400.17 implies Public Affairs (PA) leaders have express permission to establish accounts. The strategy, as stated, is foundational to maintaining and sustaining a presence. 

Local policy should be minimal and meet the unit's unique requirements while largely deferring to the enterprise-level policy—nested from the top down. Work through these "hows” to arrive at a viable policy:

  1. How does social media support the command?
  2. How does the command evaluate resources such as money, equipment, personnel and authority to operate a social media strategy?
  3. How is digital release authority managed?
  4. How is policy updated, published and disseminated?
  5. How is social media training conducted at the echelon?
  6. How are platforms selected?
  7. How is social listening conducted and reported?
  8. How will you maintain your command voice and tone across platforms?
  9. How are brand ambassadors managed?
  10. How will you communicate and respond?
  11. How are crises defined and communicated

The policy provided by the DoD and individual services outlines the limits of what the organization's social media can and should do. From there, the PA team details the specifics. For example, Joint Publication (JP) 3-61 Public Affairs provides specific guidance on records management, digital release authority and public standards. PA offices should reference service guidelines and regulations.

Content standards outline the types of content that can be shared across platforms. Ensure that these types of content align with the purpose. Consider:

  • Types of digital content
    • General content (untargeted)
    • Targeted content (designed and delivered for a specific stakeholder)
    • Broad content (appealing to multiple stakeholders within a public)
    • Cross-media content (delivered to multiple publics)
    • Viral content (where your stakeholders effectively become spokespersons on your behalf and share your content with other publics that you couldn’t have otherwise reached) 
  • Community terms of service for each platform
  • Ethics to be taken into consideration before posting
  • Measures, such as content review procedures or checklists, to ensure standards are followed
  • How the content will be formatted on each platform
  • An understanding of and how to apply the critical information list from the mandatory DoD Operations Security (OPSEC) training
  • Branding and style guides
  • Writing standards
  • 508 compliance

Social media accounts and their content must be properly archived in compliance with the United States Code Title 44, Freedom of Information Act and the respective branches’ policies. Consider:

  • What is the organization required to document?
  • What steps will be taken to ensure proper documentation and records management?

More guidance on archiving official social media accounts and content can be found via NARA Bulletin 2014-02.


Make decisions about goals, relevant audiences, platforms and messaging.

With your goals in mind, you can define why the organization needs to be on social media. Commander’s intent must be considered and included in the purpose. Also consider:

  • What is the purpose of the organization using social media?
  • How will a social media presence benefit the commander’s intent?
  • How will it reinforce the organization's core values and priorities?
  • What is the digital end state (goal)?

Audiences are broad groups of people with common characteristics such as gender, age, location and language used. Within that audience, you’ll have stakeholders and key publics.


Individuals or groups of people are stakeholders when they are affected by—or are in a position to affect—joint force efforts. Stakeholders could be key individuals in government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), individuals that live outside a military base, etc. 

Identify the stakeholders that the commander is interested in creating knowledge and behavior changes and search them out on social media. Depending on location, these groups may not be domestic, so special care and consideration should be given to language, culture and coordination with other federal agencies.

Stakeholders know/feel/do these things that they are told. They no longer believe/feel/do the thing they were doing before you started. Through your digital efforts, certain stakeholders have been activated to take action in the conventional spaces on your behalf.

Key Publics

A public is a stakeholder, individual or group that has become more active in its communication efforts. Consider publics beyond the service members in the organization. Who do we need to motivate, activate or educate to reach our goal? Think about their families, former service members and anyone who may have a general interest in what your organization specializes in. Examine followers and engagements on all platforms.

  • Who is the primary audience?
  • What other groups exist in the audience?
  • What other groups would benefit from being in the audience?
  • What social connections does the target audience have with the organization and with each other?
  • Are additional resources needed to connect with the new publics?
  • What new information can be gleaned from assessing the information environment?

The framework of digital success is creating progress toward the commander’s end state. It is only attained by achieving the four "rights":

communicate the right message to the right person at the right time on the right platform.

To aid in this process, it’s necessary to create personas. When creating personas, consider:

  • What platforms do I use?
  • What sort of content am I interested in?
  • Who are my digital influencers?
  • When is the best time to reach me?
  • What do I think about your brand?
  • How do I make decisions?
  • How do I get my news?
  • How are you defining social media success?

Determine the overarching goals for the organization's social media strategy. Write measurable objectives to prescribe how the goal will be reached. Think about how to continue building the network. Evaluate the current and desired audience, building their trust and fostering engagement. Consider:

  • What are the goals for the organization's social media networks?
  • What problem am I trying to solve or what opportunity am I trying to seize?
  • What specific objectives and actions need to be taken to fulfill these goals?
  • Are objectives established using SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) criteria?
  • How will success be determined

Platform identification should start with identifying where our stakeholders are. If a strategy isn’t built around the stakeholder, you're creating an echo chamber and missing out on an opportunity to get in front of topics and drive the conversation. Remember, each platform is unique and must be treated individually.

  1. Identify the platforms where the organization exists and can be maintained.
  2. Commit to the requirements of the platform, but be selective and smart about where to put your energies and resources.
  3. State the reason for each individual platform.
    • How does each platform benefit the commander’s intent?
    • On what platforms does the organization currently exist?
    • How often does the organization maintain these platforms?
    • Who will maintain these platforms?
    • How will the PA staff continue developing these individual platforms according to the overall purpose?
    • Are there any platforms to consider for future use?

Keep in mind:

  • All platforms must be registered with the DoD per DoDI 5400.17, Section 4.
  • Not all platforms are available for use on government-furnished equipment and mobile devices.
  • DoDI 5400.17 outlines instructions for vetting new and emerging platforms.


Develop your communication plans by using the elements you defined in your social media strategy, such as social media management, content standards and content curation to carry out the strategy. The strategy will prescribe the following elements to help shape your communication plan.

A crisis is amplified by the number of people/lives it impacts. Empathy-led social media is vital for crisis communication. As a PA, we should always ask ourselves how we would expect our organization to treat and communicate with us when a crisis happens. A key reason for building a social media presence is to encourage the public to come to the organization for information during a crisis. This allows the organization to maintain control of the narrative and build trust throughout the community. Building and maintaining trust is vital in a crisis situation. These are human beings going through this event with you, and you only have about 45 minutes for your audience to decide if you care about what's happening.

For a real-world emergency, the best practices for DoD communication channels are:

  • Review and adjust the content calendar
  • Review and confirm release authority
  • Communicate with compassion
  • Amplify credible voices
  • Use social listening to stay informed
  • Leave room for questions
  • Don’t disappear

For reputational crisis—moments where, due to unit or service member actions, we have lost the public trust—the best practices are:

  • Acknowledge the issue publicly
  • Pause all other content; tag your crisis
  • Don’t squabble or argue semantics
  • Engage personably and continually listen

Make sure crisis communication plans coordinate with and support emergency management functions. Share information and make sure outside departments are on the same page.

Consider how the organization's social media presence will sound. Choose the character and voice based on the current and emerging audience. Each platform can have its own voice and tone because of the differences in audience and platform functionality. Consider:

  • What is the tone to best fulfill the organization's purpose and priorities?
  • What voice will speak to the current audience to make them want to pay attention and visit the page?
  • What is the character or persona that will make the platform stand out?
  • What voice and tone will speak the best to the audience?

Provide an overview of how posts will sound and look on individual platforms. This section tells those responsible for posting how they’ll align with the voice and tone and gives guidelines for posting on each platform. Consider:

  • What are the guidelines for photo and video elements?
  • What are the guidelines for writing posts, captions and other text-based content?
  • What stylistic rules are required for posting and curating content?
  • What are your branch branding guidelines? 

All content, including messaging disseminated on social media, whether shared internally or externally, must meet 508 compliance standards. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires:

  • Federal employees with disabilities have access to and use information and data that is comparable to the access and use of Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.
  • Individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.

Establish a process or method for curating content. Content made specifically for a platform performs better than sharing links. Take into consideration the algorithms that decide who and how many people will see the posts. Ensure the content described and used still aligns with the social media presence. Consider:

  • What steps are put in place to ensure content continues to engage the audience by being dynamic and unpredictable?
  • How does the curated content resonate with the audience?
  • What characteristics, aspects or format will be used to ensure posts create meaning?
  • How will posts foster engagement?
  • How will posts promote diversity? 
  • Are there any legal restrictions/considerations that need to be looked at before curating specific content? 
  • What is the quality of photo composition and resolution?
  • Are service members' uniforms current and is personal protective equipment pictured accurately?

A successful social media strategy requires careful deliberation, strategic planning and continual evaluation. Since social media is a conversation, having an organized content calendar will ensure people inside and outside the primary audience will have relevant content to engage with. You will want to differentiate content across platforms while adhering to the same themes and strategies. Provide rules and guidelines for how conversations will be managed.

  • How will conversations be monitored?
  • How will conversations be reported to stakeholders/commanders?
  • How frequently will the organization respond to various groups?
  • How will you build and maintain trust across platforms? 
  • What is the appropriate response to various types of respondents (i.e., support, general communication through the platform)?

Proper social media management would also include items such as your posting schedule, review procedures, calendars, administrative management, security controls, password management and third-party management tools.

Inflammatory Commenters

People cannot be stopped from joining a public conversation on a social media account simply because of their views on the topics at hand. Those critical viewpoints cannot be used to block them from asking for government services through social media accounts. They cannot be prevented from accessing social media posts that publicly announce government information or policy because of their viewpoints.

  • What is the plan for inflammatory comments, trolls and spam?
  • Allow for some flexibility. Is the commenter trying to cause trouble, looking for attention, signaling that they need help or are they simply misinformed?
  • Coordinate responses with the legal department. When can and should a user or comment get deleted/banned/blocked?
  • When does a post no longer fall under the protection of the first amendment?
  • What is the standard operating procedure for inflammatory commenters who are currently serving? Depending on the motivation, discipline or offline conversations, other resources may need to be considered.

Before deleting or hiding a comment, always document and log the action. According to the National Archives Records Administration (NARA), you may delete/hide the following types of comments:

  • Direct threats and personal defamation
  • Obscenity that violates the platform’s terms of service
  • Promotion of commercial services or products
  • Links that pose a threat of malware


Assess the progress and results of the program to answer the questions: How are we doing? and What should we change?

Social Monitoring tells “what.” Social monitoring is the process of identifying, tracking and responding to individual brand mentions on social media, blogs, websites, review sites and forums to learn what people are saying about your brand and competitors online. This is not to say you should only listen after you post. You should know, and be able to speak to what the sentiment and tone is online before an organization or leader wades into it with content.

Social listening tells “why.” Social listening is the process of tracking conversations around specific topics, keywords and phrases, collecting data about broader conversations and pulling insights from them so you can make better decisions. Common services for social listening include Sprinklr, Hootsuite, Google Analytics and Sprout.

Social listening will allow you to leverage insights and discover opportunities to create targeted content. It will help you course-correct if necessary. Social listening involves:

  • Learning how global sentiment impacts messages
  • Using historical data to determine how people feel about an issue and/or organization over time
  • Helping understand the “why” if you observe a sudden shift in how people feel
  • Helping identify the types of language people associate with your organization

Filtering is a tool used to inform your command of what is happening and why it is happening. There are four kinds of filtering to be aware of.

Conversation Filtering

This is the baseline of social listening as it tells you what folks are saying. Filtering allows you to monitor trends and conversations through the most basic tools, such as hashtag analysis. Information will then be used for building thematic profiles of groups for message tailoring. 

Network Filtering

This shows you how groups interact internally and externally. It is used for profiling influencers to determine how they make decisions and connections. Network filtering is also important for watching how things jump from platform to platform or off the platforms and into the real world—protests, for example. Some examples of network filters are:

  • Black Twitter
  • TransTok 
  • MarvelTok  
  • CottageCoreGram
  • ThirstTrapGram

Demographic Filter

This filter sorts individuals by socio-economic or location data. It's used to track activities across groups or spaces and to segment stakeholders for message tailoring.

Psychographic Filtering

Measure individual attributes to develop personality profiles that provide actionable insight into decision-making. These filters are difficult to create and often require proprietary data. You’re not likely to conduct this filtering, although it is actively being done to you. Bad actors conduct targeted personality profiling to make the jump to reflexive control.

The first step in evaluating your social media program is to develop the evaluation timeline, milestones and report frequency. For example, do you want to provide leadership with weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual reports? What are the formats and components of each report you would like to use? Ensure your reports measure the SMART objectives you set in your social media strategy.

Identify key indicating factors that will be used to evaluate the success and failure of the social media presence as a whole and the success and failure of specific posts. Go beyond numbers and establish qualitative key performance indicators (KPIs). Consider:

  • What metrics will be measured and why?
  • What will be considered a success? A failure?
  • What qualitative analysis will be done? How will this be monitored?
  • How often will posts and accounts be evaluated?

Metrics should not be taken and put away. They need to be utilized to continue developing the individual platforms and the strategy as a whole. Consider:

  • How will metrics be tracked over time?
  • How will the metrics be used to inform the strategy going forward?
  • How often will the staff hold a social audit to evaluate and update the social media strategy?
  • How will updates be implemented?
  • How do metrics correspond to outcomes in the physical world?
  • Are we shaping narratives and influencing audiences?
  • How does the data support or contradict the goals set in the beginning?

Strategies are living documents, and social media reports are needed to evaluate the strategies' value and effectiveness. Building periodic reviews into your social media strategy ensures that timely and relevant assessments occur to advance tactics, measure objectives and improve the strategy.

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