The new blue yonder: Robins dives into social media

WARNER ROBINS — There’s a new gate in the fence separating Warner Robins from Robins Air Force Base. This one doesn’t need a guard.

“The people in our communities want to talk to our airmen,” said Capt. Mike Meridith of the Air Force’s main public affairs office in the Pentagon. “We have to find the most appropriate channel to reach them.”

Earlier this month, the Air Force held a three-day conference in Southbridge, Mass., with two dozen of its public relations officers to discuss the subject. Meridith oversaw the conference, which was attended by two representatives from Robins.

The clear mandate that emerged from Massachusetts: Go online and talk with local communities, like Warner Robins, using blogs and social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

“I think the same discussions were held when the telegraph came through, when the telephone came through,” Meridith said.

Now, Meridith says, the Air Force will attempt to go viral. The conference brought media consultants and looked at viral advertising campaigns, including President Obama’s 2008 campaign, as models for how to use social media platforms.

The subject of social media brings an array of issues to the forefront. Can airmen engage social media platforms without discussing secret information? Can airmen enter into debates on hot-button subjects — the war in Afghanistan, for example — at the risk of indirectly criticizing their commanders, including the commander in chief? With more than a half-million airmen in its active duty and reserve ranks, does the Air Force really want to release all of its men and women into the blogosphere?

For this, the military has launched its own online “Web 2.0 Guidance Forum” for troops to read before blogging (“No profanity, no sexual content, no overly graphic, disturbing, or offensive material,” it cautions the troops). The Air Force will soon launch its own landing page with links to official Air Force social media pages.

“The Air Force has always been a control-based organization,” said Phillip Rhoades, chief of news technology for the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command headquarters, based at Robins Air Force Base.

“Right now,” Rhoades cautions, “the one thing we do know (about social media) is that we don’t control the medium.”

Department of Defense computers are almost always programmed to block troops and civilian employees from logging onto social media sites.

Rhoades said that he envisions the Air Force using social media to “correct the record” of stories that float around the blogosphere.