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Defense Bloggers of the Highest Order

July 15, 2010
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Connections

The U.S. Defense Department’s Bloggers Roundtable connects new media buffs and online journalists with civilian and military leaders using conference calls on topics that range from military operations to military families. Despite challenges with ever-changing technology and policies, the program continues to gain support for its focus on openness and transparency.

Charles Holt, senior strategist for emerging media, Defense Department, can trace the Bloggers Roundtable back to an op-ed article in The Washington Post by Richard Holbrooke on October 28, 2001. Titled “Get the Message Out,” the article highlighted what Holbrooke saw as Osama bin Laden’s initial success defining the war as an attack on Islam, rather than a war against terrorism. Bin Laden’s ability to spread his message to the Muslim community raised the question: “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” Holbrooke pointed out.

The problem, Holbrooke ventured, was twofold: the message and the messenger. The same disconnect came to the attention of the department and was included in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which contained a piece directed at strategic communication and learning to succeed in a 24/7 media environment. The QDR called for the establishment of the Emerging Media Directorate to research and understand new technology, and the department selected Holt to lead the initiative.

In February 2007, footage of the Battle of Haifa Street was released during a press conference and made the evening and morning news cycles in the United States, only to be ousted hours later by reports of pop culture celeb Anna Nicole Smith’s death. Holt received a call shortly afterward from Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, USA, former deputy chief of staff for strategic effects, Multinational ForceIraq, concerned about the lack of coverage. The general challenged Holt to find another way to spread the news.

Holt had been monitoring a self-professed group of “milbloggers,” who followed the military and the conflict in Iraq closely through news outlets. With such a wide spectrum of writers and a huge amount of Web traffic, Holt saw an opportunity to engage. “Links are the currency of the ’net,” he said, and rather than drive bloggers to other news sites, Holt aimed to give them more access and make all the information linkable to the Defense Department’s website.

Rear Adm. Mark Fox, USN, served as the first speaker for a roundtable discussion on the conflict in Baghdad. Holt sent invitations to the milbloggers, and the response exceeded expectations. The group came armed with knowledge, explains Holt. “This discussion was absolutely amazing—these guys were well-studied. They weren’t easy questions by any means, but they were fair.”

What started as a monthly roundtable quickly became a daily event. Lt. Jennifer Cragg, USN, operations officer, Emerging Media Directorate, Defense Media Activity, and the directorate staff now lead the roundtables, which draw anywhere from two to 23 bloggers. Following the earthquake in Haiti, Lt. Cragg says they held up to three discussions per day.

Branching off from the initial focus on Iraq, many discussions now have shifted to Afghanistan, although Holt says the information structure in that country makes it difficult sometimes even to hook up a phone line. Despite challenges, the directorate now leads two conference calls a week with the NATO Training MissionAfghanistan, and it aims to highlight “the guys on the ground downrange who really provide the meat of what is going on,” Holt says.

Brian Natwick, director of the Pentagon Channel and acting director of the Emerging Media Directorate, says the directorate pushed for more coordination between the American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel in recent years. When a hot topic arises in either network, the directorate latches onto it for the Bloggers Roundtable, and vice versa, he explains.

Natwick has been pleasantly surprised across the board with the openness the directorate has in their roundtable coverage. The front office has been incredibly responsive, right up to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, shares Natwick, and the posture with the Defense Department and social media has become more transparent and honest.

With more than 500 roundtables under their belt since the program’s inception, the directorate plans to continue the initiative “until social media becomes something like an 8-track tape,” quips Natwick. Awareness of the directorate’s mission is growing throughout the military, and while Holt emphasizes that the goal is not to inundate the blogosphere, he hopes the roundtables provide a missing link between journalists and the news that doesn’t necessarily make headlines.

Interested bloggers can sign up online to receive alerts and conference call information for upcoming roundtable events. The department also provides transcripts and audio files from previous roundtables on its DoDLive blog.