Social Media at West Point: A Behind the Scenes Interview
Dean Tsouvalas, Editor-in-Chief of StudentAdvisor.com, interviewed Major Olivia Nunn, West Point Public Affairs Executive Officer and Social Media Chief at West Point – The United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. West Point was ranked #9 on the Top 100 Social Media Colleges rankings released in Fall 2011.
Founded in 1802, The United States Military Academy at West Point has gained a reputation for being one of the toughest educational institutions in the world to get into. And, why shouldn't they be selective? They are responsible for training America's top military officers.
Affectionately known as "The Long Gray Line", West Point's alumni include 2 presidents, 3 foreign heads of state, 18 astronauts, and a whole slew of notable generals including Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, Norman Schwarzkopf and David Petraeus. It comes as no surprise that the history department declares, "Much of the history we teach was made by people we taught," as their unofficial motto.
DT: How large is your social media team?MN: Our team here at West Point, specifically at West Point, is a team that was comprised inside the Public Affairs Office. My team is five people and I’m one of the five. I have four personnel who work for me and inside the social media team. We are responsible for not only social media on different platforms, but also how we present ourselves on the worldwide web specifically our website, which is www.westpoint.edu. That current page is also coming under construction soon and we are going to update our site to be able to provide updated information to our audiences in an updated book later this Spring.
DT: I would have to say West Point is forward thinking in how you leverage social media. What are some of the ways you have been doing that?
MN: West Point has been involved with social media particularly Facebook for quite some time. One of my colleagues actually started the West Point fan page. It was a form of communication we were using to be able to communicate with our audience. It seems you can get somebody faster on a social media platform than calling them these days. So, with that being said, we recognized in February of 2011 that the need to communicate on social media, especially Facebook, was a way we could be successful.I was given an additional area of duty, as I am the Executive Officer in the Public Affairs Office at West Point, to head a team and to bring the team in together to focus on social media. Facebook became the launching point for us in terms of social media platforms.
DT: Which department at West Point oversees your social media community?
MN: That’s actually us. The Public Affairs Office or PAO and as I said, and I am the Executive Officer inside PAO. Actually the reason why we oversee social media for West Point is because under the Department of the Army, one of the duties and responsibilities of a public affairs officer is to insure that the content of information that you share with your readers and audiences is accurate, is factual, is truthful, and it’s timely. And you are sharing your message that conveys what your leadership wants to convey.
With that being said, social media is just an extension of communication and that's why the public affairs office is the office that oversees it.
DT: How many departments are engaged in social media for the academy?
MN: I think that’s a hard question to answer and this is why. Every academic office here, we have thirteen academic departments, has a Facebook fan page to share to their specific audience about the things that they’re doing. Like the Department of Systems Engineering, the great things that the cadets in that department are doing, and their faculty and staff. The Department of Foreign Language that’s another one.
But we also have other departments outside of just academics. We have the United States Corp of Cadets that shares things that the cadets are specifically doing that pertain to them. Then you have other agencies on West Point that have a myriad of tasks and responsibilities and they utilize Facebook. So obviously each departments’ Facebook page is geared specifically to the audience that they’re trying to talk too. So we have quite a bit and we have Facebook fan pages for some of our athletic teams and some of our competitive club sports that represent West Point. So when we say departments that’s loosely defined to different, I would say, agencies at West Point and we have quite a few.
My job here in the Public Affairs Office with my team is to insure that we monitor their pages. We work with each one of these agencies to insure that their Facebook pages represent the information that the Superintendent wants to share. Again, that it’s truthful, it’s accurate, it’s timely and that there is no violation of operation security information or in other ways known Op Sec. And, we’re here to provide training for them and we’re here to insure they’re adhering not only to West Point’s policies but also adhering to the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army policies as well.
DT: Some of my favorite YouTube channels are from West Point. Can you tell me a little bit about them? What your involvements have been? I noticed the Band had an incredibly engaging channel and I saw the Ask a Cadet features. Tell me a little bit about who started the Ask a Cadet feature.
MN: On YouTube, the channel called the West Point Channel was started by a soldier of mine. Her name is Sergeant Alexandria Corneiro. She is, by the Army’s definition a broadcast soldier. She has been stationed at West Point for a couple of years. It was her idea. She came up with the idea of wanting to provide a means of communicating with our audiences and giving what we say is an “Insider’s Look” to West Point. She created the channel on YouTube and created the show called “The Point”. So you could see an evolution of our show if you go and click on through The Point from episode 1 to the most current episode where we added some members to the cast, where we’ve gone a little more in depth, we’ve kind of changed how we provide stories. That is all of SGT Corneiro’s idea that she brought to life. She put a lot of emphasis of her time and she’s been very successful with it.
DT: It also shows the willingness of West Point to let someone come up with their own idea and to really support it and move forward. That’s impressive.
How is social media making a difference at West Point and what aspects of social media and tool do you think are very effective for your community?
MN: I think social media, and I think for any community particularly here at West Point, is a very effective tool. It’s a tool we do leverage to be able to communicate to our local community as well as our extended community who are not physically residing at West Point but want to know about West Point. Either because they are connected to us because they were once here, they are a grad or they are a donor or they’re parents of a current cadet. But what we use social media for is to share West Point on a daily basis to our audience. To those that are interested because like I said how they’re connected or maybe they’re an international student or maybe they’re a possible teenager who’s interested in coming to the Academy.
So we use Facebook to show them what West Point is all about and we try to show a unique aspect of West Point every day. We try to post at least three times a day with something that’s really interesting about West Point. We like to share what our clubs are doing. What our teams are doing. What they do academically. What visitors we may have.
But we also utilize our Facebook and social media platforms to be able to provide information in emergency situations. For example, this past year we had some interesting things that Mother Nature threw upon us here. We had a little earthquake. That was the earthquake that hit the D.C. area and we felt the residual here at West Point. We didn’t have any damage or injuries but we did feel it and we put that out immediately. We captured a photo and we sent it out. We felt the aftershock here at West Point and but there was no injury, there’s no death, there’s no harm that’s done. The immediate feedback we got especially from parents – they were excited because they’re not here with their kids. We were able to provide for them so they didn’t have to call their kid and wonder where they are because they’re busy in class. We provided the information “Hey your kid is just fine.”
Then we had another incident – Hurricane Irene. That swept the East Coast as well. We did have some portions of West Point did get a lot of water. We were able to provide that information to our community. We made sure we relayed information about road conditions. Again, the parents were able to check in and make sure kids were okay. That’s how we used it for communications.
DT: What channels are you using, I know you mentioned Facebook, what ones are you using to get the message out three times a day to tell people more about West Point?
MN: We are heavily focused on Facebook and Twitter. We do have a Twitter account and that Twitter account is tied to our Facebook. We do share information on both aspects. We also utilize as we talked about earlier, YouTube and the other one that we utilize is Flickr. Anytime any one of our photographers goes and takes photographs, we load them onto Flickr and we caption them. We’re very successful with photos.
Many times people do not necessarily want to get the information from Facebook, but they’re interested in a photo. You know how you say, “Where’s Waldo?” We say, “Where’s Your Cadet?” A lot of times parents are perusing through photos hoping to catch a glimpse of their own child. Those are predominantly platforms that we focus our attention on only because of limited personnel. We need to make sure we’re focusing on the platforms that communicate a broad audience.
DT: What kind of social media policy or guidelines do you have in place for your students and your staff?
MN: As I said earlier, we utilize the DOD / Department of Defense and the DA / Department of Army social media policies that are currently in effect. We are constantly keeping tabs on what’s coming in in terms of new policies that we need to pay attention to. We also need to pay attention to training, the recommended training or the required training. We get that information by staying closely tied to the Department of Army, to our counterpart in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs at the Pentagon. I have a counterpart there that I talk heavily with and her team shares information.
With that, we have created a social media standard operating procedure, an SOP, here at West Point that was approved by my boss, Lt Colonel Sherri Reed who is the Director of Public Affairs for Communications here at West Point. And in that policy we reiterate what the DOD and DA talk about and some do's and don’ts and give them good pointers on how to be successful with the current platforms that we utilize. That’s readily available. We give those to departments when they ask for them.
Often departments will call us and say, “Hey, I want to start a Facebook page. I’m ‘x’ group or ‘x’ club and we want to start a Facebook fan page. Can I come see you?” So they’ll come into the office, I’ll sit down with them, and I’ll go over the policy and make sure that a Facebook fan page is what you want. Or maybe is it a Facebook Group or a private group for the information you want to share. Or maybe it’s just a Twitter account you want to do. My team sits down with them and we say, “Okay, what is it you want to do? What can we do for you? Okay, if this is what you want to do these are the policies you need to adhere to.” And we present that. We give them the do's and don’ts. We help them set up their page. They’ll email us and say, “Hey, here’s our page can you take a look at it?” We look at it to make sure it has the correct information, the correct things that we’re looking for. My NCO, specifically Sergeant Christopher Camacho, he’s the one who pays attention - that is his area of expertise that I’ve given to him. He goes through and culls through all the pages and he works with them one-on-one.
For the most part it’s been a great relationship that we’ve been able to establish with each of our departments because they want to do the right thing. They want to share the right information, they want to tap into our expertise and we share that.
DT: What about the students? I know you must at times deal with critical information that you cannot have a student Tweeting out or a photo. How does that work?
MN: Cadets like any military personnel falls under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There’s some training that goes into making sure they understand that there is a conduct about themselves not only when they’re in uniform, but out of uniform. When they talk on any social media platform as well as in person. We utilize a chain of command here at the Academy just like any other Army institution. Many times, we’ll have instructors reach out to us and say, “I want to give training to the cadets to insure that they understand the do's and don’ts." How do they gauge the media? How do they not engage the media? So it’s more than just dealing with social media. It’s how do you deal with media period.
DT: Do you teach a course on social media or are you asked to go and speak to various classes for that?
MN: There is a course taught every senior is required to take it’s called “MX400 – Professional Military Development”. Inside that course, there is one lesson that addresses specifically information operations. In the Army, public affairs falls under information operations. When they get to that block of instruction I am asked to be a guest speaker. Even if I’m not the one giving the class there is course material that is provided to them.
DT: Do you perceive a time as social media will have its own class or program?
MN: I think more importantly it’s not necessarily a class per se. I think it’s just educating our cadets. They use technology especially if they’re heavily into the engineering classes and things like that. Some professors do utilize technology and advancement technology and the things that are offered so I don’t think necessarily that a cadet needs to have just one class about social media. What I see is more important is “how do you encompass social media into your life recognizing that even though this is a cool thing, a hip thing and everybody’s doing it. But how do you do it smartly because as a cadet or military member you represent not only West Point your represent the Department of the Army. I think it’s more education and bringing that education piece into everything that they do.
DT: Do you know if Admissions spends any time looking at applicants' social media presences? Do you have any tips if someone is interested in going to the school, what they should or should not do?
MN: I cannot talk specific for Admissions, but I do know Admissions does have a social media presence. They are obviously on our website, they have a link and they provide a lot of information for anyone who is interested in coming to the academy: How to start your packet, what does it take to get your packet together.
We also do offer a lot of information on Facebook, on our official Facebook fan page at the level I administer which is the one you’ve seen the West Point United States Military Academy. We do get people who write on our wall saying, “Hey, I’m xx person. I’m really interested in coming. This is kind of my background. What do you think?” And we answer. We do our best to answer those people that put comments on there. Now we don’t necessarily answer back to opinions whether they’re positive or negative. We try to let the audience itself self-police within the conversation. That’s always better than us stepping in. But when it’s a specific question we do try to answer and if we’re not the ones who know we’ll point them. A lot of times that what we’ll end up doing i.e. “Hey, why don’t you go to our website, click on Admissions and I bet you can find your information there. And a lot of times, that works. So we leverage social media to point you back into the direction where you can find that information.
DT: How would you define social media success at West Point?
MN: I guess for us for success is telling the West Point story and part of telling the West Point story is “how does a cadet that has a forty-seven month experience here at West Point graduate as a commissioned leader of character?” In order to do that we have to inform our audience. So we don’t necessarily here in the social media team get bogged down with numbers or metrics. What we do look at is when we do share something “what did that do for us?” “What kind of information or feedback did we get from our fans?” Sharing about in the summertime what we call “Reception Day” or otherwise known as “R Day”. That’s the incoming group or class that is coming in the summer. It’s the one day they are in-processed. They are moved from being a civilian to being a new cadet. That’s one of the largest events outside of graduation that occurs here at the Academy annually. So we share that information. It's not necessarily numbers, it’s more the content you’re providing back to us. That’s how we gauge our success.
And how do we share the information about West Point and the different academic departments, clubs and teams. It goes back to we assist them, we help them set up their pages, and we share their information - like the West Point Triathlon team. I’m an officer representative for that team and they’re one of the most successful collegiate teams in the nation at #2. How do I share that information? They have their own Facebook page and their own website so they put information and depending on what it is we’ll share that at the top level.
DT: Is there anything you would like to add?
MN: I think more importantly for us where we’ve been the most successful is that we do a lot of thinking and on-going conversation in our office. You know like “what kind of photo are we trying to capture?” Then when we capture and share it, "how are we insuring we are captioning the photo so it will mean what we want it to mean?" What makes us successful is the conversation that you see on our Facebook page. Specifically somebody will comment about a photo that we put up. Or a video image. Sometimes you’ll get some negative things up there and we’ll sit down, talk to each other within the team, and go “Hey, this person just commented about this and that’s what he said.” And our personal opinion is it’s negative or it’s not something we’d rather want to talk about at the Academy. So do we delete it? Do we respond back? Do we just leave it? We’re always having this open discussion inside of our team.
More often than not, we end up saying, “just let it ride. Let our audience self-police itself.” Where this person might say something bad about West Point, but five people behind him might say, “No, you’re an idiot. West Point’s awesome for these reasons.” If we stepped in every single time then it doesn’t do us any good. The only time we pull information is when the reader or the audience comments and it’s against our policy that we have listed on the info tab of Facebook. If it’s political, if it’s religious, if it’s demeaning. If you’re trying to promote your business or you’re talking about selling we take it down. Other than that, if it’s just your opinion. If you say “West Point sucks” – well, we don’t think West Point sucks, but I’m not going to delete your comment because what happens is a reader will come along and go “West Point doesn’t suck. It’s an awesome place. It’s where leaders of character are commissioned from. Where they live the values of duty for our country.”
So that’s what we do and I think that’s what’s been very successful for us because we have this open ended dialog every day. Not only does that do us good in terms of how we represent ourselves on Facebook, but it’s a great conversation for constantly growing and developing within our team.
About Major Olivia Nunn
Major Olivia Nunn was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Chemical in 2001 from Radford University. MAJ Nunn has served in several positions in the Army which include; Chemical Reconnaissance Platoon Leader, Battalion Chemical Officer, Convoy Commander, 4th Infantry Division's Chemical Training Officer, Assistant S3 Operations Officer, Brigade Training Officer, Brigade Unit Status Readiness Officer, Brigade Liaison Officer, Troop Commander of Head Quarters and Head Quarters Troop, 1st Brigade Combat Team and is currently serving as a Public Affairs Officer at the United States Military Academy at West Point. MAJ Nunn has deployed three times in support of Operation Iraq Freedom while furthering her education by completing a Masters of Science Degree in Environmental Management from Webster University. Her accolades include the Bronze Star 1OLC, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal 1OLC.