The U.S. Coast Guard has always been on the cutting edge of communications. At a time when its mother agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is still struggling with simply putting video online, the Coast Guard has long since developed its own channel on YouTube. Years ago, the Coasties recognized the value of gathering photos and video — not only for operational and training purposes but also using it to communicate with the public and explain the mission, hazards, challenges and successes of the organization. Whereas many law enforcement and national security organizations view the media with a jaundiced eye, the Coast Guard has long understood the fundamental value of pro-actively engaging the media in an effort to communicate to the public at large. And its reputation is the better for it.
Consider the praise the Coast Guard received for the valiant efforts of the men and women who put their own lives in danger to save others during Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. Footage of dramatic rescues. Orange choppers breaking through inky skies. Bodies pulled from roiling seas.
All the praise the Coast Guard received for its professionalism during these emergency hours was well deserved. However, there were a number of first responders who performed acts of heroism, but you will never hear of most of them. Unless a news crew happened to be positioned nearby, the work was done in anonymity. And there is certainly nothing wrong with anonymity. The urge to save a life is not motivated by a camera crew. Nonetheless, by capturing the work it does, the Coast Guard has a treasure trove captured on digital disk. Training film. Records of evidence. A digital blackbox should something go terribly wrong. And, yes, exciting video that can be shared with the media and the public. Not for bragging rights. But to educate that critical audience about the mission of the Coast Guard. To explain to the public: This is how we do what we do. To instill a sense of confidence in the everyday Americans that if they find themselves in trouble off the coast, these guys will be there.
The Coast Guard should be applauded for its pro-active approach to communications. And now it should be applauded taking it to the next level. The Coast Guard has announced an organization-wide effort to begin experimenting with social media — Web 2.0, Facebook, the blogosphere, and a variety of other online communications tools.
Credit must go to Admiral Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, who has personally led the way and set the tone. Below is a video that Admiral Allen shot in which he addresses the entire leadership of the Coast Guard, urging them to familiarize themselves with Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, the blogosphere, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.
Indeed, “urge” is a diplomatic way of putting it. The Admiral pretty much gave marching orders. The world of communications, he notes, is undergoing a “revolution.” The old way of interacting — fraternal meetings and bricks-and-mortar social clubs — are being replaced by online variations. This is how the younger generations of Coasties interact, and it’s how a growing segment of the public at large interacts, he notes. Therefore, it is “critically important” that the leadership of the Coast Guard understand this environment and, equally important, participate in it.
And, to make his point unmistakeably clear, he uploaded his marching orders to YouTube. No teletypes or staff-meeting where the word trickles down. One video, from the man himself, looking directly in the eye of very Coastie. Nice job, Admiral.
It’s clear that Admiral Allen is doing more than issuing orders. He has set up an account on Facebook personally (and the Coast Guard has a page as well), and has taken to social media as a way to communicate with his organization. He engages in blogger roundtables.
It is unfortunate that he stumbled during a recent blogger roundtable, when he made a comment that was interpreted as distinguishing between “journalists” and “bloggers.” The comment made a lot of waves in the blogosphere, and the Admiral took some heat for it. Truth is, it seems that the lawyers may have gotten the better of common sense during whatever debate took place internally by settling on a FOIA interpretation that “traditional” journalists can have access to the FOIA’d documents but not bloggers (at least without a hefty price).
It’s unclear where a “blogger” who is a full-time writer for the New York Times or National Journal or Government Executive would fit into that murky distinction. Traditional journalists or blogger? What about all those high-powered journalists who write primarily for the online version of the Politico?
Admiral Allen is right that the communications environment is undergoing a revolution. Not only in the sense that some of the tools are changing. The very way we communicate is changing. Admiral Allen gets that. When he says that the old days of physical social clubs are being challenged by online versions, he’s right. Another aspect of that revolution that folks haven’t completely come to understand yet is the advent of transparency. Sunlight. With every passing month and year, it will be more and more difficult to keep certain documents in the shadows. There are too many instant technological tools to find and retrieve information. The smartest organizations won’t try to fight that trend. They’ll acknowledge the inevitable and find ways to use it to their advantage. The others, probably the majority, will fight for a while until they can’t anymore. And their reputations will have taken a Cheneyesque fall.
I for one believe that the Coast Guard will work its way through this and come out ahead of the game. The Coasties always come out on top. They’ve got good poeople. They’ve got a commandant who’s come up through the ranks, is an old sailer, but is as comfortable creating a Facebook page as he is typing memos on one-finger-jab old typewriter.
This is a good sign. Admiral Allen, we salute you.