Address the Message, Not the Messenger

Article 6 min
When communicating in the digital era, messages can get easily misconstrued or deliberately misused to cause conflict within minutes. It is difficult not to immediately react or take it personally when you’re in an environment flooded with opinions, misinformation, deceptive content and trolls, etc. Consider these best practices before you respond.

As a communication strategy officer (CommStratO) or public affairs officer (PAO), you are part of managing the DoD's reputation and relationship with its social media audiences, meaning that you will be dealing with opinions, misinformation and disinformation originating from bots, trolls, influencers and adversaries. While operating in the digital environment, your messaging can become misconstrued—intentionally or unintentionally—and spread quickly, spiral or go viral within minutes.

Timing is critical. You need to be aware and have a plan to control the narrative. Hundreds of engagements can occur on your post in a single day, amplifying a message across the internet without the help of media outlets.

Let's look at a fictitious example.

A local military unit implemented a new physical fitness policy to be more inclusive and increase recruitment. This new policy lowered the standards for how physically in shape the fleet would have to be and maintain. In a press release, the unit stated they decided to make these changes with the goal of helping "level the playing field" and increase interest in joining the military, regardless of gender.

A news media outlet covered the story, and conversations began online, including inflammatory comments. The unit quickly responded by addressing the messengers.

A local military unit implemented a new policy, and their social media audience addressed them with derogatory messages. The local military unit responded by directly tagging a national news outlet. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Image of a tweet from a local military unit and negative responses.
A local military unit implemented a new policy, and their social media audience addressed them with derogatory messages. The local military unit responded by directly tagging a national news outlet.
VIRIN: 230320-D-ZW071-1001

Don’t React. Respond.

Part of being a CommStratO or PAO means that you, whether on social media or at a speaking event, will have to engage directly with the public. Here is an example of how the scenario above could have been handled differently by joining the conversation in a timely, concise and powerful way. Responding in this manner can significantly impact the narrative and reaffirm the DoD's message and principles.

After being called out online by a news outlet, the local military unit responds forcefully, defending itself without tagging anyone specifically. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Image of a positive Tweet from a local unit with a picture of multiple service members posing for a picture. There is another image of an additional Tweet with another response.
After being called out online by a news outlet, the local military unit responds forcefully, defending itself without tagging anyone specifically.
VIRIN: 230320-D-ZW071-1002

By joining the conversation in a timely, concise and powerful way, you can significantly impact the narrative and reaffirm the DoD's message and principles. Follow these strategies and concepts to craft a powerful response and take control of the narrative.

Taking the risk to be a part of a conversation in motion, even if this conversation is heated, can significantly extend the reach and range of your message. However, it can create a narrative counter to intent if done poorly. You must never tag or directly tag the messenger. Join the conversation by addressing the message, staying on topic and showcasing your organization's values.

Additionally, when crafting your response, refrain from creating videos or graphics that combine acts of violence or weapons with humor and consider if the content you are posting may be offensive to your followers and other community members. Consider diverting the conversation out of the public social media space. Responding with "send us an email" or using direct messaging can remove the spectacle of an online argument and allow you to address the issues directly.

Social media engagement is a two-way conversation or dialogue between the DoD's social media platforms and their audience. You must actively listen to the audience's responses and interpret issues to create opportunities and develop future or follow-on messages. You must seek opportunities to leverage trending social media conversations and hashtags on platforms to inject the DoD's message and extend its reach. You can use the available metrics like retweets, quotes and likes to make sound, data-based decisions.

In some cases, not commenting can be a good course of action if the volume of conversation is low. This is where social listening or monitoring the discussions surrounding your brand, unit or organization can help you make informed decisions. You can inadvertently generate more discussion on a topic by weighing in. Remember, the social media world can be very quick to move on to another topic.

In accordance with Joint Publication 3-61, Appendix F, Section C, only remove content or take a page offline if there is a specific violation of Operational Security or published business rules. Additionally, you must never remove social media content from official DoD accounts unless there is a factual or typographical error; a violation of a law, policy, term of service or user agreement; or an operations or information security concern.

If you do remove content from social media, it should be publicly acknowledged and communicated to audiences to provide context and appropriate clarification for the removal. It should also be documented and kept in accordance with the records management procedures in Department of Defense Instruction 5400.17, Section 7. You must monitor, communicate and, where appropriate, responsively engage with users regarding removing content. Removing content can unintentionally discredit the DoD if the action appears to be taken to:

  • Avoid embarrassment
  • Stifle or silence discussion about a controversial topic or
  • Mislead users to believe an issue is inconsequential or of minor significance.

You must understand how your local command and leaders are represented online, professionally and personally. It is essential for individual leader accounts to be active and "in the moment" to provide facts and context and project the DoD's values on social media.

How is your organization represented online, and who is releasing information on their behalf? What information is available about you personally, and what steps can be taken to mitigate that risk?

Personal accounts must be clearly identified as personal, and you must avoid misrepresenting yourself as an official DoD spokesperson on your personal account in accordance with DoDI 5400.17, Section 7. Additionally, avoid using DoD titles, insignia, uniforms or symbols in a way that could imply DoD sanction or endorsement of the content on your personal account.

All official correspondence using DoD resources must be done using government technology, not personal devices, and must be registered with the DoD. Official DoD and personal accounts must be distinctly separate. A personal account cannot be converted to an official account, and an official account cannot be converted to a personal account.

You must use careful consideration when engaging with the public. Interactions with the public via social media must always be respectful, responsive, genuine and exercise a high standard of professional ethics.

All official social media content reflects the DoD; therefore, special consideration should also be given when commenting and replying to other accounts and their content. When commenting on others' posts, speak as the DoD and not as an individual, using first-person plural pronouns "we," "us" and "ours" instead of singular first-person pronouns "I" and "me."

You must never release content that could be reasonably construed as offensive, inappropriate or unbecoming. Content should inspire and engage with audiences; it must always uphold the DoD's efforts to remain a good steward of the public trust.

When disseminating information, it is critical to understand the political context of that information. Your unit should always be focused on showing bipartisanship. In accordance with the Hatch Act of 1939, you must refrain from engaging in political conversations and not offer any form of endorsement such as a share, like or other reactions to political statements, posts and graphics.

Additionally, Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 provides service members with policies on political activities. Service members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity. Service members not on active duty should refrain from inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval or endorsement.

Before social media messaging even has the chance to get misconstrued, it is crucial to have a plan on how to handle the situation and communicate. A social media strategy sets the rules for your organization on social media. This strategy can include content standards, archiving policies, commenting procedures and how to handle a crisis.
When the intent of your messaging gets misconstrued, it can be laborious to manage and can quickly lead to the spread of disinformation and misinformation. If this begins to happen, remember to:

  • Consider the source of the material,
  • Read beyond the headline for critical details,
  • Check the author and analyze their track record,
  • Check the references and quotes to ensure they are from valid sources,
  • Check if other mainstream news sources are discussing the narrative and compare,
  • Consult subject matter experts and fact-checkers, and
  • Obtain and maintain an understanding of the issue's political context or elements to avoid the appearance of partisanship.

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