[This is a restart of my social media global report, an ongoing series of interviews with people from all over the world on how they use social media in work and life. There have been over 350 such Q&A reports since 2005. Many of them became the starting points for content that I’ve used in books, articles and speeches. If you can suggest someone for a future SM Global Report, please email me: [email protected]–SI]
He’s an actor’s son, educated in PR and working as a communications officer for the US. Department of Defense. With those credentials I did not expect Charles “Jack” Holt to be among the most approachable, transparent and credible people I’ve met through social media, but he is.
His official title is Senior Strategist for New/Emerging Media, Department of Defense. That’s government talk for Jack being the Pentagon’s top social media guy.
Holt has been a key part of a Defense department team that has used social media in innovative and powerful ways. It began because the Pentagon felt it could not tell its story properly in traditional media, not because of unfair coverage, but because the press is more concerned with fast-breaking than deep-and-continuing news.
There was some frustration involved. There was a top-down directive–and there was some collaborative and creative thinking involved. This, the first of two parts, focuses on a Blogger’s Roundtable that changed perceptions of the Pentagon, the qualities of blogger outreach programs for organizations that feel they cannot get their stories properly told through traditional programs.
Jack is a good story teller, and the stories he tells have lessons for other enterprises facing similar problems with traditional media.
One additional note: This interview follows on excellent podcast interviews by two colleagues: Shel Holtz and Eric Schwarzman. I have tried to build and expand upon their earlier reports.
Q. When we first met, you told me about the role you played in the 1995 Oklahoma City terror incident. Can you retell it now?
I’ll do my best.
In April of 1995 I was a student at the University of Central Oklahoma and working for an operations company at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. I worked the night shift on April 18th and on the morning of April 19th I had was awakened by a rumbling that shook my house at 9:02 am.
I turned on the TV and saw a traffic helicopter video feed of a large black cloud rising from the center of Oklahoma City. About 15 minutes later the voice of John Hanson, the Oklahoma City fire chief came across the TV set as he explained there had been a massive explosion downtown.
Five minutes later, my boss called me, asking me to come get out to the airport where they were already making arrangements for a massive rescue and recovery effort that would include supplies and support to fly in soon.
Part of my job was to monitor the news so we would know what to expect.
There are several lessons I learned from the incident.
Lesson 1. Fire Chief John Hanson, a well-known and popular figure around town, remained very active. Most every time there was a fire incident of note, Chief Hanson was on the scene, working with reporters to cover the story while directing the efforts and allowing his crews to do their job.
Part of leadership is creating the conditions for your people to do their jobs effectively. His dealing with the press cultivated that. And one not to miss an opportunity to teach a lesson, usually his interviews with the press included telling people how they can avoid being in the situation on which they were reporting. By being visible and approachable and through his conversations with the public through the media, John Hanson had developed credibility with the community.
On April 19, Chief Hanson was quickly on the air exercising leadership and guiding, not only the fire department response, but the public response. He picked a vantage point which gave the media visible access to the incident and also remain close to his command post so that he didn’t waste time moving to and from the incident.
Lesson 2. He accommodated the media so the media could accommodate his ability to lead.
The chief was available as much as he possibly could be and when one of his spokespeople filled in, his leadership was reinforced by the messages: 1). Here’s what we know, 2). Here’s what we’re doing, 3). Here’s what we need you to do.
Lesson 3. Engage the community. Those three messages were updated throughout the incident. They informed the community of what was happening and, more important, engaged them in the response.
Some requests were small, “Please turn off your cell phone we need the bandwidth for communication” (The police, fire, and emergency response radio antennas were all on top of the Murrah Building which was destroyed so emergency communication in the downtown area was relegated to cell phones), or “please do not come downtown unless you are a medical or emergency worker.” As I mentioned, he not only led the rescue effort, he led the community in the rescue effort. Everyone was involved.
Q. You also told me about some interesting behavior by one of the national broadcast film crews. Can you share that again?
As the magnitude of the incident became more apparent, national media interest grew. Through various channels we learned to expect the influx of national reporters and crews through our airport. We helped arrange transportation, maps, etc. to expedite getting the crews to the site.
One crew, who shall remain nameless–except to say the network has the letter A–in its name, arrived on our ramp, offloaded enough gear for four- or five crews, and asked if we could store what they didn’t need.
We did. And then the crew began to outfit themselves with riot gear– flack jackets, helmets and such, and then rain gear as the weather had turned cold and wet, and then they ran out the door, jumped into their rented minivan and off they went.
Several hours later, they returned to retrieve their gear and I struck up a conversation with one of the cameramen asking him how it went.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “We got downtown and I saw the crowds of people. I’ve covered Desert Storm and spent time in Rwanda and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This was not a rookie cameraman and I figured he’d seen some really bad stuff so I was a bit perplexed and asked, “The building?”
“No,” he said. “The people. I expected them to be angry, ready to riot. I was down on the ground shooting video when this person walks up to me, which made me very nervous, and asked ‘would you like a sandwich? Coffee? You must be cold.’ and I was stunned. Nobody ever treated me like that at an incident like this. And it wasn’t just that person. Everyone was there to help somehow and any way they could. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The incident produced Lesson 4. Leadership is communication and communication is leadership.
Q. On the day that Anna Nicole Smith was the headline story in virtually all American papers, I was in Miami at a media executive conference hearing how the American people filtersand gatekeepers to select news for them. Where were you on that day? What other news was available and competing for the headlines grabbed by the death of divorced, controversial model?
Ah, yes. I remember that day.
It was the first week of February 2007. General [David] Petraeus had arrived in Baghdad as commander of the Multinational Force Iraq [MFNI] in January and began the “Change of Strategy” that many had been clamoring for.
The first effort in this change occurred a week or so before and was dubbed “The Battle of Haifa Street.” This established the first combat outpost to be positioned within the population. The battle lasted for three days and there was some very compelling video and photos captured in the battle. It told the story of soldiers in battle and MNFI took that video and released it to the media. It made the evening news cycle in the U.S. and then the next morning’s news cycle. Then, it was dropped, as all the news coverage shifted to Anna Nicole’s death.
Q. How did that incident evolve into the DOD Blogger Roundtable?
That’s the interesting part.
In October 2006 the Quadrennial Defense Review was released and in the Strategic Communication Roadmap was a priority to “learn to communicate in a 24/7 New Media environment.”
I was part of that team and had been working since October with the Public Affairs and Strategic Effects people at MNFI to explore how we could help them. I was surveying the “milblogosphere” [military bloggers] to find out what they wanted from us.
The milbloggers were explicit. That were succinct and clear: “Give us access and make it linkable.” Ok, so how do we do that? Some wanted to embed reporters with units downrange, but the rules wouldn’t let them because they had no publisher other than themselves. They would need insurance. They would need support. How would they get it? Those were the things I was assigned to work on with MNFI.
When Anna Nicole’s death knocked the Battle of Haifa Street out of the news, then-Major General Bill Caldwell, the MFNI deputy chief of staff for strategic effects, asked his communication folks, “What happened?” “Where did the coverage go?”
“That’s the way the news business is, boss,” they answered.
“Well, do something different,” he responsed.
And they did. They called me and asked, “We want to start a YouTube Channel, but that will take some time. What can we do tomorrow?”
My response was to have them send me all the images and video they released to the press, I would send it out to the bloggers and I asked them if they could get someone to talk to the bloggers via a telephone conference call.
They agreed and we set it up a conference called between about a dozen bloggers and Rear Adm. [Mark I.] Fox, Maj. Gen. Caldwell’s deputy. The call was scheduled for 30 minutes and ran 45.
The questions were insightful, probing, deep and they allowed Rear Adm. Fox to elaborate and explain what the Battle of Haifa Street was all about. It was a very rich discussion. Rear Adm. Fox told Maj. Gen. Caldwell, “You have to talk to these guys. That was a great experience.” About a week later Gen. Caldwell was a guest on the call and the DoDLive Bloggers Roundtable was born. We expected to do one or two a month. At its height, we were averaging of two-to-three daily.
Q. Can you tell me one interesting Bloggers Roundtable anecdote that demonstrates how successful it has been for DOD?
We did one with Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, USMC who, at the time was the Commander of Task Force 134, Detainee Operations in Iraq. During his tenure, Maj. General Stone made some major changes in detainee operations. He started optional general education and Islamic religious classes for detainees along with offering trade skills like carpentry and bricklaying. They were conducted by Iraqi teachers and clergy.
Most detainees were vetted and then either released or turned over to the Iraqi civil courts if found to be actual bad guys. The changes were so well accepted and attended by the detainees, that when they got out, they quit calling it “release” and started calling it “graduation.” At one graduation a woman came up to Maj. Gen. Stone and asked, “Can you keep my son one more year?”
Maj. Gen. Stone said, “Ma’am, you don’t understand. He’s no longer a detainee, he’s free to go home.”
The woman said, “No General. You don’t understand, we live in a small village. There is no work for him there. You are teaching him. You are training him. He is safe here. Just one more year and things will be better in our village and he can come home and find work.”
Washington Post researchers caught the anecdote and forwarded it to Walter Pincus, their Pulitzer Prize winning national security reporter. Pincus wrote a front-page top-of-the-fold story. It was followed by two more stories in the Weekend Edition in a four-page pull-out special section on the developments in Iraq. Three stories from that one Bloggers Roundtable session.
[Next: Jack Holt discusses the overall impact social media programs have on traditional media and discusses another innovative program that changes how people may see the US Pentagon.