US Navy “burning the boats” to join social media conversation

August 16, 2011

A speech on the US Navy’s approach to communications by Admiral Gary Roughead has surfaced in my Twitter feed.

The Admiral is the US Chief of Naval Operations and he gave these remarks to a Public Relations Strategic Communications Summit in June.

The general message is that the US Navy realised it could no longer afford not to participate in social media despite potential security risks and the challenges of a "dizzying" communications environment.

The speech marks a significant departure from the guidance in the US Navy’s social media handbook issued last year.

The 2010 manual discouraged Navy leaders from allowing too many individual units to set up social media accounts and urged commanders to establish a single "command presence". 

In this speech, Adm. Roughead instead argues that the Navy’s leaders need to understand that they command a "workforce of communicators".

He emphasised a transparent approach so that Navy leaders could listen to their subordinates and connect with the communities they were serving.

The Admiral cited the response to the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan as an example of how local commands could provide speedy updates on the crisis situation and reply to questions from the United States. 

He recognised, however, that the Navy has "only recently started to come to terms with the demand for radical transparency."   

The full speech is available here, but a few other sentences that I think are worth picking out:    

1. "For whether we embrace the fundamental communications changes underway today or not, our talented young workforce not only embraces them, they know nothing else. As leaders, then, it’s not enough that we keep pace with these changes – we must lead the change."

2. "I submit to you that in today’s media environment, as leaders – whether we recognize it or not – we are no longer simply leading a workforce of employees or, in my case, Sailors. We are leading a workforce of communicators."

3. "…it soon became clear to me that opting out [of engaging in social media] neither guaranteed security, nor served our interests in transparency, outreach, and advocacy. Rather than consider whether we could afford to participate, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t afford not to participate."

4. "So we joined that conversation, and the term that I’ve used is, “we’re burning the boats.” There’s no going back. We’re committed irreversibly, and in the end it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made as the Chief of Naval Operations."