The State Department continues to lead the way among federal agencies making use of new media tools. Colleen Graffey, deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy, published a column (“A Tweet in Foggy Bottom“) in the Washington Post yesterday outlining why she has set up a Twitter account.

“Not that long ago,” Graffey writes, “communicating diplomat-to-diplomat was enough. Agreements were reached behind closed doors and announced in a manner and degree that suited the schedule and desires of the governments involved, not the general population. In fact, the public was by and large an afterthought. But the proliferation of democracies and the emergence of the round-the-clock media environment has brought an end to those days. Now, governments must communicate not only with their people but also with foreign audiences, including through public diplomacy. … Simply put, Twitter is just one more tool through which we can connect, and by linking my messages to video and photos, I can inform whole new audiences about U.S. views and ideas in a format with which they feel comfortable.”

Simply put, Twitter is just one more tool through which we can connect. Well put.

In talking to some folks, particularly in the government and security sectors, there is often quite a bit of anxiety over the notion of using the powerful new media tools that are changing the way we communicate. It’s a little perplexing to me. Often, the hesitation is justified with comments about the need for IT security. I have worked at federal security agencies. I understand the need for strong IT security. This isn’t an issue of security. If necessary, give your communications team a laptop, a wireless card unconnected to the agency server, and go to town. There are a dozen simple alternatives other than simply doing nothing.

The real concern, I think, is with moving into unchartered territory, an unfamiliarity with these news tools, a fear that the hard-eyed executives might not take us seriously if we talk about tools used by college students.  Twiterwhati? Silly rabbit, Facebook is for kids!

This is evidence of a failure to grasp how the media and communications landscape is irreversibly changing. The suggestion that Facebook or Twitter is for college kids is as uninformed as it is tiresome. Not only are top corporations in the private sector actively engaged on these sites; so are terrorists and criminals. The Internet has indeed made the world flat;  social media tools have made it paper thin.

I’m not a wild-eyed Internet revolutionary. And though it pains me to admit it, I’m no longer a kid. I am a forty-something with graying (“pearling,” according to my diplomatic barber) hair and a bad knee. But I can’t pretend to be a communications professional and not understand that strategic communications is undergoing significant and important change of the level we haven’t seen since television first debuted nearly a half century ago.

Some of the Old Guard will wave off such a comment. Television is still king, they tell us. True. It is. But it’s not really television that is king – it’s video. Television is merely a means of distribution. Increasingly, video is being distributed via cable lines direct to computer monitors that serve as computer screen, television screen, movie screen … And these newfangled social media gizmos that aren’t so newfangled anymore? Well, video is landing on those sites in staggering numbers and having an immediate impact. Just ask (former) Sen. George Allen.

But more to the point, as Colleen Graffey put it, new media tools are simply one more way to connect. They are supplements, not replacements. And they are not going away.

There are a lot of folks who don’t like blogs. They don’t like all the attitude and misinformation and chatter. Sure. There are also a lot of folks who don’t like the traditional media, either. They don’t like the fact that there may be bias or that views tend to get filtered and re-interpreted by journalists and editors. But a communications pro knows enough to tell the resistant principal: You might not like the media, but they are writing their stories anyway. We can either have our say and shape the story as best we can, or we can allow others to shape it for us. Either way, there will still be a story about you tomorrow.

This usually works. It’s a wonder, though, that so many communicators still fail to see the same logic as it applies to online media – whether it’s the blogosphere or social networking sites. The conversations are still happening out there, whether we engage in them or not.

We can ignore the blogs and the tweets and all the other new media with funny names. The conversation will simply go on without us, shaping the public perception of us wihtout our input. We simply miss another opportunity to connect, to push our message … to join the conversation that is already taking place — with us or without us.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More