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:


Tanya said...

Your ground rules totally make sense. When I was working in DC (back in the days of just instant messages and the very start of social blogging), I would NOT give my interns my screen name or even let them know I was online until their internship was over...and that was before FB with all the status updates and all that good stuff.

Although social networking is great and all, there are definite pitfalls...besides the obvious professional ones. I still see OPSEC issues with spouses and that is really just venturing into dangerous territory.

But back to the topic, if I were working outside the home again, I'm not sure how I'd balance social networking and professional life...esp. since I'd be working with college students. There really is such a fine line with using social media and maintaining your professionalism. One of the other DHs on our old boat friended EVERYONE...even spouses (spec. JO spouses). That did make a lot of spouses uncomfortable...esp. since many had barely met him once.

Anyway...good luck on your next tour and your move!

blunoz said...

Thanks Tanya. I could understand friending the spouses being weird, too. I used the same philosophy with the spouses that I did with the sailors (and officers, too). I wouldn't send them a friend request, but if they initiated then I would accept (because I don't want to show favoritism and accept one but not another).

FineNavyGray said...

Been dealing with this situation myself. I tried to not accept any friend requests, but that just caused conflict later when I had to explain myself, and it seemed to create a greater divide than was really necessary. It really draws the line in the sand. I'm careful of respecting that boundary, but never want to give even the impression of a holier-than-thou attitude. I've settled upon the same rule set that you have, and it hasn't backfired so far.

reddog said...

There are no good rules for limits to social interaction with subordinates. Each person must set his/her own limits.

Fairness and impartiality may be admirable ideals in a command structure but they not human traits. Obedience to what the Navy requires, in all respects,by everyone, is the purpose of command structure.

Some guys have the common touch and can inspire near universal love and devotion, in spite of and in fact because of fraternization that would be suicide for any other.

Some, whose history of command decisions are uncannily correct, can maintain a distinguished reserve that allows them to maintain effortless authority and respect.

Some guys are universally loathed wherever they go but nit pick and bully their way to a level of discipline that is unquestioned.

These guys can't all use social media the same way. If your way works for you, that's good.

A more important question is whether or not you are aware of your command style and are you utilizing it in the best way possible?

You have this Christian, corn fed, boy scout, Don Winslow of the Navy schtick goin' on, that's pretty hard to keep up past O-4.

MSPCO said...

I have actually given you this advice yourself. Work with the XO (and COB) to discover where each of you are strong and where each of you are weak. Align yourselfs to best use those strengths and defend weaknesses within your style. Department Heads can also fill in any gaps that you all still perceive.

As a Christain, boy-scout, not sure on the corn fed and I am not Don Winslow, CO-served, O-6 selected Navy guy, my advice would be be very careful about changing your shtick. Your shtick and my shtick are not too different and it has worked just fine for me.

SamanthaSimons said...

I'll keep my opinions to myself as, being a spouse, I don't matter one iota to this command we're on and rarely do to the Navy. I keep OPSEC in mind when it comes to what I post, and for the most part stay out of the fray.

But I'm glad you brought it up and I'm going to send your post to Andy on his gmail, as that topic has come up recently on their boat. In some ways, like you said, it can work in a leader's favor. IE: a junior enlisted sailor boat posted a suicidal note on his fb that his mother saw and prompted her to call the quarterdeck of the base he was on, which led to a psych eval and he was pulled due to suicidal ideations, and gotten help. AMEN!

However, like you said, it can get sticky with fraternization as well. Andy's current CO has voiced his frustration at being added by sailors of all ranks on his boat, and then constantly seeing the boat flogged by those guys. Well, no comment there. He said that can be a downside to friending subordinates. But he also promoted facebook as a good networking tool to keep in touch with superiors from commands past, especially for situations such as screening boards. MY thinking on that is, if you stood out enough to that superior, he's going to remember you regardless of whether you're friends on fb or not. Then again, I often think very differently than the mindest of the military.

Bottomline, there are good rules , and rules of thumb to follow. It'd be awfully nice if wives would learn to stop posting about homecoming dates and port call dates and locations on their pages though. :)

Celia said...

I think this is good advice for anyone in a supervisory position, period. It's not just the military that has to deal with ethical questions regarding fraternization, though elsewhere it's sometimes called different things.

From a coach's perspective (mine), I accepted all friend requests from parents and swimmers back when I was coaching club swimming. I did not seek out Facebook "friends" from the organization I worked for. It's different in that there were no regulations regarding my use of social media as a coach, but I still had to think about the issues of fairness and favoritism.

However, I dealt with an entirely different issue when I coached high school swimming. Because they were technically my students, I thought it prudent to "ignore" all requests from both parents and students until I was no longer coaching them. If the kids graduated and were no longer part of the program, I had no problem accepting their friend requests. (Still, I didn't seek them out.) I had a colleague who worked for a different school who in my mind crossed that line several times, and it bugged the heck out of me.

Back to the Navy fraternization/social media use issue... I think your policy is great if it works. So far I think it's generally what I've seen done by my husband and his colleagues. I'm not sure what the un-official policy at his former (or current) command was (is), but your thoughts make sense to me.

Regarding what Tanya and Sam said--I see lot more OPSEC violations than fraternization violations on Facebook. (Of course, I don't see a lot of fraternization problems from my end so my view could be a little skewed.) I've had to report several times imprudent disclosure of boat movements. There's really no excuse for that, and I wish some of the guys would also keep that stuff in mind. (PERSSEC too, since many of the sailors seem to pretty much advertise when their families are going to be alone for months at a time.)

Mega Munch said...

Excellent advice! I, for one, can say that I served with you "back when you were an Ensign" in your fast attack days on SSN 719 and it's incredible how much has changed in terms of technology and social media between then (mid 90s) and now.

I've often wondered how today's senior enlisted and commissioned sailors handle social media and what guidance the Navy gives on its usage. It's good to see that they allow for some personal good judgment and don't take a hard and fast "zero usage" policy.

Dave Shoffner
(Former RM2/ET2, USS Providence '94-99)

blunoz said...

I found another excellent blog post on the topic of Navy leadership and the use of Facebook here:

The Silver Fox said...

This was an extremely well-crafted post, of value to anyone using the social network sites, and not just military personnel. I especially liked the part about the urge to interact with those of your own age and (presumably) shared life experiences. Great job!

Hope you and yours are doing well.