Pre-coronavirus, finding anything on a military website felt like a slog. Post-COVID, it feels like an impossibility. Everyone is online. Everything is online. Even your grandma has mastered screensharing. And yet, why does DOD still struggle with getting information out there?
Information moves too quickly out of official channels into the hands of those who need it, as well as those who would use it to do harm. To regain this loss of control, the military has historically adopted a cautious media presence and therefore often times maintained an ineffective media presence.
The new normal
Interactive communication is here to stay, but so is the importance of maintaining OPSEC. While we know “loose lips sink ships,” we also know “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” However, just because data is more accessible doesn’t always mean it’s dangerous.
The unhelpful admin
When D’Marie Bartolf, a Navy veteran and active duty spouse, learned she was about to PCS from California to Washington, D.C. she did what military spouses do: researched schools, homes, commute distances, etc. She found an article that outlined a new policy that would allow her to move six months after her spouse, even though her children were not yet school aged. Thrilled at the opportunity for flexibility, Bartolf’s husband asked his detailer if they could take advantage of this policy.
No one could find the official instruction.
After all internet keyword searches came up empty, Bartolf ultimately resorted to crowd sourcing military spouse Facebook groups to obtain the details to support their request. While many could say that the Bartolfs simply encountered a less-than-helpful, under-trained employee, it may be a symptom of a systemic problem. The military lives in a paper world within a virtual culture.
A digital DOD? SEO worst practices
The information is all out there. It is published. It is approved. It is official. But it is also lost on the internet.
If you want to find a news topic, you open your favorite search engine. Your brain thinks of what you want to learn about, and you come up with keywords to search to get the result you want. The search engine pulls relevant articles and websites based on the words you chose.
This is the idea behind Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Websites are competing for your views. So, they embed keywords that will bring you to their pages versus. someone else’s.
The government, however, is not in the business of competing for clicks. It still relies on paper documents freshly signed with wet ink. Most government websites do not utilize SEO best practices, like keyword tags or metadata, and therefore you will not likely find the information you desire, unless you know exactly what to enter into your search box.
Better safe than sorry?
If you are lucky enough to get the site you want, you will find that military websites and social media pages are not standardized across service branches. From the outside looking in, it might seem that leadership is content with the status quo. However, in reality, it may be that their caution is intentional, not just outdated. And now, with COVID-19 adding an additional layer of confusion, the lack of concrete information can further frustrate service members and their families.
According to a 2017 Rand Study, hesitation to participate in social media has far reaching national security implications and is “rooted in DOD’s reliance on old media and its one-way flow of information rather than taking advantage of the interactive nature of new media.”
Without lively interaction, social media platforms can easily become virtual versions of mail-room cork boards. Significant changes to policies, rather than being pushed out to service members and their families through targeted marketing, are passively posted, thus relying upon others to get the word out.
Embracing social media: military “businesses” lead the way
“We already know that our military market, our military consumers, that 58% are reaching us through our website, through mobile devices,” Karen Meeks, Regional Marketing Director for Navy Region Southwest Fleet and Family Readiness, said. It was this realization that resulted in an intentional 80% reduction in print media, from 3.6 million to roughly 720,000 pieces of printed material.
“When you talk to senior leadership, they ask why do you want to do all this?” Meeks continued. Her answer: “Because we can get analytics to know what programs are working and what are not.”
So far, these incremental steps, the reduction of a reliance on paper, increased focus on digital data collection and strategic SEO have proven successful, resulting in an overall increase in revenue. According to Meeks, Navy leaders are watching this digital initiative. Or they were before COVID hit.
Although the pandemic has slowed Navy Region Southwest’s momentum, Congress has taken notice of this lack of communication. Language in the Senate version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was aimed at making DOD websites more accessible.
Although COVID has taken the focus away from these changes, it simultaneously made the need for improved access to government digital information all the more essential.Read comments