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By Mr M. Boulton


During the middle months of 1939, as war raged and the threat of attack weighed heavily on the minds of millions – Ministries across the UK strategised on ways to strengthen the war effort. Among them, the Ministry of Information: the central government department responsible for producing publicity and propaganda.

At the heart of this Ministry sat a group of people who would come to create one of the most iconic man-made images of World War II, designed to reassure the British public that all would be well. One poster, white lettering, red background, five words: Keep Calm and Carry On.

Of the close to 2.5 million posters produced at that time, only handfuls were displayed. Negative reaction to posters produced as part of the initial propaganda surge, and its subsequent cancellation saw these posters being pulped, and the ‘Home Publicity’ campaign being dubbed as a “resounding failure”. Why? It was expensive, and its intended audience found it patronising and divisive.

Over 70 years later, the days of small teams being in sole charge of what populations will hear, and how they will hear it, have – like these original posters – become increasingly rare. Where at one time an editor decreed the style, tone, content, order and timing of news that their limited populations would hear – we now live in a world where everybody can share anything with the entire world – and all when they see fit.

This is the joy, and the challenge, of social media. It’s un-edited, it’s often unchecked, it’s fast-paced, and it’s being produced in record quantity and at breakneck speed. And if we want to be heard, it’s a sandpit we needed to play in.

At NZ Army, social media had a slow start. A Facebook page was about as far as we were prepared to go – and even that was treated as a noticeboard rather than the community-engagement tool it has proven to be.

Being an organisation that due to national security and the safety of its people must occasionally control publicly released information, stepping into a world where imagery and information suddenly, and rapidly, leaves your control (and that’s just the information formally released from the centre) was never going to be an easy one. Even more daunting was the fact that we tended to be heavily reliant on traditional media to help us tell our stories. For us, new media meant a largely unexplored frontier.

We recognised that the newsrooms no longer lead the news – the world did – with an increasing percentage of people carrying a high definition camera, an editing studio and a virtual printing press in their pocket. If you believe the information currently online, by 2020 it is estimated that 90% of the world’s population over the age of six will have a cell-phone. Today, there are officially more mobile devices in the world than there are human beings. We operate in a world where news is being live broadcast by the person on the street – 24 hours per day – via a huge range of mediums including blogs, photography, 15-second video clips, or in messages of 140 characters or less.

In real terms, our news no longer belonged to us, which made it even more important that, within the noise, our voice was being heard. But how do you alert your audience to your story when most of them are already suffering alert fatigue? (It’s a thing. Google it.)

The simple truth is that there are no easy answers, so the best we could do was embrace the challenge and try to work it out. We started by creating a small suite of social media platforms to help us to share our news with those who were interested. As at today, we run official NZArmy and NZ Army Band Facebook pages and several Twitter accounts. Added to this are the other official NZ Defence Force channels and the many personal pages and accounts created by individuals keen to show the world where we are, who we are and what we’re doing. We hope to refine our social media use we mature in this area, but with the channels have set up so far, here’s what we have learned:

Those who ‘like’ you don’t necessarily like you: We were somewhat unprepared for the harsh and very public criticism we sometimes got. We needed a plan to guide how we would deal with that. Our plan was surprisingly simple: we don’t have rules in place for dealing with public criticism; rather we have rules in place around tone and language. We will instantly delete posts that contain obscenities, discrimination, or hate speech in any form. As a public organisation, we should expect to have our detractors. As a well circulated meme says – haters gonna hate – and we can’t control that. Happily, the foil to this is that most of our ‘likers’ genuinely like us, and with their positivity and supportive comments easily outweighing (and usually slamming) the occasional negativity, our social media feeds remain largely unscathed.

What people like surprised us: We assumed that everyone who liked us wanted to see imagery and videos of our Army being strong, well-equipped, well-trained protectors of our nation – our #Force4NZ. We have found there is a definite audience for information about new kit, action shots of our best being their best, and of anything that goes bang. However, there is also a huge audience for content that shows the humanity of our profession of arms. Kit and platforms are great, but at our core we are made up of people. In an Australian sense, think of the viral photograph of the Aussie firefighter holding a bottle of water for a Koala to drink from following devastating bush fires. That single image resonated around the world because it clearly highlighted the human touch involved in these large-scale operations. In a NZ Army sense, think of the YouTube clip we released showing our Army personnel performing a haka for their fallen comrades when they were repatriated to their home camp. We quietly and respectfully released it, and the simple act of coming together to mourn the loss of friends and comrades struck a chord. Our video has hit well over 2 million views, and appeared in Google’s YouTube clip – Zeitgeist 2012: Year in Review – itself clocking up over 17,000,000 views. We learned that our stories are as broad as our audience, that they want to hear them, and that we should tell them.

The channel we own isn’t always the right channel to use: When we started to explore using social media, we fell into the trap of thinking the best place to share our news was through our own channels. We have learned to explore the myriad of conversations happening around us and add our voice to the ones that matter. By doing this, we can showcase our organisation’s excellence and values, our people and their stories. As an example, when we heard that the Australian Army had lost three soldiers in one day in 2012, we didn’t offer our condolences on our own page (our channel) – instead offering them to the people we wanted to hear them – the Australian Army using their Facebook page. Our simple and sincere message of condolence and support received over 98,000 likes and in excess of 1,100 comments – nearly all of them overwhelmingly positive.

The good and the bad offer equal opportunity: We are actively trying to find out what the public are talking about, positive or negative, and see if there is a way we can join their conversation. Showing both the serious side and the less-serious aspects of a military organisation is a fantastic way to open your organisation to the rest of the world. LTGEN David Morrison’s brilliant 2013 YouTube clip outlining his behavioural expectations within the Australian Army was an outstanding example of front-footing a story with the right message in the right tone from the right person at the right time. Of equal impact, and at the other end of the spectrum, was the US Army’s parody video of the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders lip-synching Carly-Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”. Showing that leadership is strong in times of crisis, or that creativity and joy can exist in a harsh and harrowing environment can be a social media master-stroke. Both YouTube clips received over one million views. Both positively influenced their viewers as to the excellence of those military organisations. The ‘ayes’ – or in this case, the ‘likes’ – have it. Kudos to those who created them.

Sometimes we have to live fast and learn fast: Social media is immediate. When bogged down with bureaucratic sign-off processes, stories will become old news – fast. Of course, where OPSEC is a consideration, we take the time to get it right. But when the opportunity allows we act quickly. Provided we are mindful, being agile can pay dividends, increase trust, and showcase our organisation as one that leads its own news. Sometimes we get it wrong, but more often than not we don’t. We have learned to trust in the latter, and forgive ourselves the former.

Social media is forever: This isn’t just that a Snapchat photo, once shared, is never truly deleted (which it isn’t, as we tell our forces when we are discussing social media). It’s also about realising that the commitment to using social media as an effective story-telling and engagement tool is a long game. With this in mind, we plan for it, commit resources to it, and include it in every plan we develop. We are starting to take a ‘digital by default’ approach to telling our news. It’s a work in progress and ongoing planning and analysis will shape the way we will use social media in the future, but we take it seriously because we have to. Social media is where the world is having its conversations. It’s where alliances are being forged, communities are gathering, and where opinion-ma

kers turn to measure thinking. If we’re not in it, we’re out.

One size does NOT fit all: There is a distinct difference between those who like us on Facebook, and those who follow us on Twitter. And even these two platform

s are splitting their audiences through channels such as Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope. Using Facebook as a recruiting tool used to be a no-brainer – but now the largest growing group of users on Facebook are females 55-65 years old. Not exactly our target market for recruiting. We are regularly revisiting who is using what channel, and for what purpose, and we are comparing old media to new. Is our story worth submitting to the local newspaper with its limited reach – or should we be aiming at channels like the Huffington Post with its 110,000,000+ subscribers? We have to find the best fit for the story we’re telling.

Social media has literally opened a world of opportunity, while challenging us in ways we could never have imagined. In real terms, we have only recently st

arted our jo

urney on this new battlefield, but we have made some good ground. We’ve stopped using Facebook as a noticeboard, and are beginning to find better ways to engage through that medium. We’re further exploring Twitter and the possibilities if offers and we’re looking to branch out into a broader range of platforms, so that we can talk to the people we want to talk to in a way that suits them best.

For organisations whose success has relied on robust planning and, often, secrecy – social media is a new frontier. We have taken our stumbling first steps, are s

tarting to walk, and hope soon to be running. And on those rare occasions when we do make mistakes in this most public of arenas – we try to remember a simple mantra that came out of a very public failure:

One poster, white lettering, red background, five words. Keep Calm and Carry On.

NZ Army can be found online at,, and on Twitter @NZArmy