Friday, September 10, 2010

Advice to Junior Officers: Social Media

Back when I was an Ensign (peanut gallery says, "Ooooooh, boy, here he goes..."), I had some great officers and chiefs teach me a lot about life in the Navy.

One nugget I remember was the warning about fraternization.  Now, I'm not talking about male-female fraternization since women aren't yet serving on submarines.  I'm talking about unduly familiar relationships between officers and enlisted Sailors.

It can be tempting as a 23 year old Ensign to become friends with the 23 year old E-4s because you're part of the same generation.  You grew up listening to the same music.  You watched the same movies.  You played the same video games.  You had the same posters on your bedroom walls in high school, worshiping the same teen idols - be it rock stars or sports stars or super models.  You remember the same critical events in history (like where you were on 9-11 or when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and how it affected you).  You may be fans of the same sports teams and watched the same World Series or Super Bowl or NBA finals.  You probably have a lot in common except for the fact that one decided to go to college and one decided to enlist in the Navy (which are BOTH honorable choices).  Even so, you can't be friends.  That would be "prejudicial to the good order and discipline" of the command.

Fast forward umpteen years later and enter the world of social media. 

During my tour as XO on the Mighty MSP, social media was still pretty new.  The Navy had not yet embraced social media as the important communication tool that it is, and there were no rules or guidance on whether it was okay or forbidden.  It was just sort of out there.  Sailors were using it.  Most of my wardroom (including me) and our wives got assimilated by the Borg sucked into Facebook.

But nobody ever sat me down and said, "Shipmate, if you're going to be active on social media sites like Facebook, then here are some guidelines and things to consider..."

This ALNAV message (ALNAV 057-10) provides a very broad-brush-stroke, overarching guidance for the use of the social media by Navy personnel, but it is more concerned with not speaking on behalf of the Navy, not violating operational security and/or giving out classified information.   

Aside:  In the process of searching for information on this topic, I discovered that CHINFO has a very useful web page of social media references

This topic of discussion came up during at a leadership school I attended last week.  We asked a lot of questions like:  As an officer in the Navy, is it okay to use Facebook?  Is it okay to "friend" one of your Sailors?  Those are tough questions with no clear right or wrong answer.

Some people will NOT use Facebook (or any other social media site) AT ALL to simply eliminate any risk to their privacy or security or implication of impropriety, and that's okay.  In my case, I find Facebook is a very useful tool for staying in touch with family and friends scattered across the globe.  Plus, as a leader, social media can provide some awareness into what's on your Sailors' minds.  In several instances, it has brought to my attention when a friend or shipmate has been in need of advice or assistance.

While it is a useful tool, it should go without saying that you need to be cautious about how you use social media sites like Facebook.  Keep the privacy settings on lock-down, and follow the good advice in the ALNAV message to minimize the risks of computer security and operational security.  However, I think that's all "Social Media and Internet Safety 101" and doesn't address the questions I mentioned above.  Is it okay for an officer to use social media and not jeopardize the good order and discipline of the command through fraternization or unduly familiar relationships?

For what it's worth, here's my unsolicited advice of the day.

Blunoz's Ground Rules as an O-Ganger on Facebook

Rule #1:  I don't send friend requests to my subordinates.  Consider it respecting their privacy.  If they don't want me seeing into their personal lives and communications with their friends, then that's fine by me (even if it's because they're complaining about that a-hole XO they work for).  If I did send them a friend request, then they might feel pressured or obligated to accept because of my position of seniority / authority in their chain of command.   

Rule #2:  I accept ALL friend requests from my subordinates.  If you accept one, then you have to accept them all.  To accept some and not others would give appearances of favoritism.

If one was concerned about fraternization through Facebook, I suppose one could impose a criteria such as, "I will not accept friend requests from enlisted Sailors."  In my personal experience, I am Facebook friends with many of my enlisted shipmates, and I haven't had any problems with it.  I generally don't post many comments on their pages except to say congratulations for promotions, weddings, births, etc.

Regardless of your personal preference or social media philosophy, it goes without saying that you have to be careful about what you post.  Anything you write on any blog or Facebook post can go viral and end up on the front of the Navy Times.  If you're hanging out at the same places the enlisted crew hangs out, and pictures get posted to Facebook showing you there with them, then it could create the perception of an unduly familiar relationship and/or favoritism with one or more of your crewmembers.  I'm not saying don't go out on the town for fear of running into crewmembers.  I'm also not saying don't take pictures with your shipmates.  I'm just advising you to be aware of the possible perception and be cautious.

What do you think?  

I don't claim to be an expert on this topic.  I'm just sharing my personal philosophy about it.  Do my ground rules make sense, or am I overlooking some other potential pitfall?  Do you have other rules or guidelines for using social media?  I appreciate any feedback you have to offer on this topic in general or on my ground rules above.

Update 10/29/2010: I found an excellent blog post on the topic of Navy leadership and the use of Facebook here: