SXSWi 2010: U.S. Air Force social media in Haiti, Chile

Seeing social media as a force for good in crisis, relief situations

U.S. Air Force Capt. Nathan Broshear discusses how the Air Force is using social media in crisis/relief situations and for communicating soldiers' stories to the media. Plus, what's new in developerWorks this week.

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Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



30 March 2010

developerWorks: This is a developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham. This week, I have an interview with Capt. Nathan Broshear on how the US Air Force is using social media to assist in rescue operations and connect soldiers directly with the media.

(Editor's note: To discover what new resources are available this week in developerWorks and My developerWorks, jump to the end of this interview.)

Now, here's my interview with Capt. Nathan Broshear, who is in charge of public affairs for U.S. Air Force Southern. We met at South by Southwest Interactive 2010 here in Austin, Texas, recently.

I just spoke with David Meerman Scott and he gave me the idea to speak with you. And this is Capt. Nathan Broshear of the U.S. Air Force. Thanks for taking a moment to chat.

Broshear: Well, thank you for being here.

developerWorks: You all were in a panel together. What was your part in the panel? What were you talking about?

Broshear: Well, David invited me to be on the panel to talk about how the U.S. Air Force is using social media to reach out to the media. And one of the things we're doing to do that is to take our stories and not just put them on the Web site but allow airmen to tell their stories.

So we've really opened up the government network to allow the various people within our organization to tell their story because really people don't want to hear from the PR guy.

developerWorks: Right.

Broshear: They want to hear from the guy on the ground, the guy in the cockpit, the guy that is actually handing out the food in Haiti. They don't want to hear from the public relations guy.

developerWorks: And I didn't set that up properly.

Broshear: No, that's OK.

developerWorks: You've been in Haiti since the earthquake?

Broshear: That's right. That's right.

developerWorks: What were you doing? What was your job there?

Broshear: Well, as the director of public relations for Air Force's Southern, we're the air component to U.S. Southern command, I'm in charge of all communications efforts for the Air Force in that region of the world.

So when the Air Force responded by opening up that airport, you had Air Force special forces guys right there on the ground opening up the airport. And then of course, you immediately had the media show up.

developerWorks: Right.

Broshear: And that's when our job really kicks in.

But more importantly, we also were concentrating on how we communicate with the people of Haiti, where to go to get food, where to go to get aid. And some of the interesting ways we did that is we would have C-130 aircraft flying over broadcasting a radio signal in French Creole.

And then we would air-drop radios — hand-crank radios, so you don't need any batteries or anything — so that people could listen into the radio broadcast and get information on not just where to go to get food but also on things like sanitation and disease prevention, pregnancy prevention — all these sorts of things that people in a crisis might need to know.

developerWorks: And what a challenge with the destroyed infrastructure there. I mean, how did you do that?

Broshear: Well, one of the ways is we're used to definitely going into austere environments and setting up our communication channels very quickly. So we've got a team of communications experts that literally they can push off the back of a C-130 a whole pod that allows us to have Internet, radio, cell phone — everything we need very quickly. And you can imagine in a wartime environment that that is something you need to set up communication.

So that makes the Air Force kind of uniquely qualified to help out in times of crisis. You heard the president talk about how the United States military has this capacity to respond to a crisis very quickly and mobilize forces very quickly because of our wartime mission. We have that capability.

But also what we did was very quickly start to transition those things over to non-governmental organizations. So we realized, we're not the experts in handing out food, we're not the experts in rebuilding the cities. So what we needed to communicate to the American people and to other NGOs which might be interested in coming to Haiti to provide aid, was we're going to get things stable and we're going to set the groundwork for you, but we're really looking to those experts — those people from [U.S. Administration for International Development], those people from the American Red Cross, those people for Help for Haiti and Doctors without Borders, and a myriad of other charitable-type organizations — to come down there and really show us how it's done. And we can enable them to do their job.

developerWorks: I've got to ask you, too, since you've been there and it would be remiss of me not to: How are things going? You just left and you're going to be heading to Chile?

Broshear: Right. I left last week from Haiti and I came here to South by Southwest. I'm here today. And then tomorrow I head to Chile. My team's already in Chile.

And this is just a crazy time for our command because we cover all of Latin America and the Caribbean. And it was just when Haiti started to be under control and things started to kind of simmer down in Haiti, the earthquake in Chile happened, so we immediately had to respond to that.

developerWorks: And so for a vacation you came to South by Southwest. [LAUGHTER]

Broshear: Yes, so for a vacation I did one day in Austin. You know, my wife's not too happy about it. She just wishes they'd stop having earthquakes.

So from a social-media aspect, what I do is I don't look at my job as being a public relations guy; I look at my job as being the facilitator, the guy who provides access for the media and to let other people tell that story. They don't want to hear from me.

As I said before, what they want to hear is from the guy working in the hospital. He's the expert on what the people of Haiti need. He's the expert on what sorts of medical issues that they might have. So I put those people out in front and let them tell their story.

developerWorks: People want some reality TV now. We're talking about some serious reality around here.

Broshear: That's real reality, and it's sobering reality.

developerWorks: What are some of the ways that you, some of the tools that you use, online tools? I mean, is it all proprietary Air Force stuff? What do you use?

Broshear: No, we use off-the-shelf — Facebook, Twitter, all the other social-media tools that you might use in your personal life.

developerWorks: So you're doing all ...

Broshear: We're in all of those spaces, and our airmen are in all those spaces.

So again, I'm going to put that communications package there to allow them to talk back home to their family on Facebook and let them post their photos about what they're seeing, and let them tell their story to Nebraska, Kansas, Maine, Texas — wherever they might be from — and tell their story.

developerWorks: Wow.

Broshear: Or I might call a newspaper from their hometown and just hand the phone over to the other guy and let him tell his story.

I think another neat thing that we had going on there was we were able to manage that crisis in real time. We had non-governmental organizations on their Twitter account saying, "Hey, we're having trouble getting a flight in. We're having trouble getting had aid here."

And we had a whole team at the Pentagon that was doing nothing but engaging via Twitter and the blogopshere with non-governmental organizations and with people that were interested in Haiti and pushing them in the right direction — like, "Hey, here's the number to call to get a slot to land your airplane. Here's the operation center that you need to call to get your pallet of water or your pallet of diapers or whatever medicine — whatever the item might be — to this port of entry so the Navy can take it ...."

Because what we found is there was an outpouring of compassion. And that's what my boss, he was talking to the Associated Press, and he said, "How come the Air Force just didn't take over the air field and control 100 percent of the flights?" I mean, we have that ability. We've got hundreds and hundreds of transport airplanes. We could just have our planes flying in and out all day.

And he said, "What you're missing, if we were to do that, the U.S. Air Force were to do that, all of that compassion that people from around the world showed ..." we had planes from China, Qatar, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Canada, an outpouring from Europe. "If we were to have taken over, then all of the compassion that those people have would never have been able to get in there."

developerWorks: It would be choked off.

Broshear: Right. So we had to purposefully restrict the amount of air traffic that we had to, say, 30 percent of the total air traffic. And even then we still had people booked out all the way past, up until now.

The thing that I really saw that really touched me was we saw multi-millionaires, we had them pulling in with [Gulfstream G500] jets full of items to donate to the people of Haiti. And they would look at us and say, "Where is the nearest hotel?" I'd point to a patch of grass over here and say, "Right there it is. This is it. There is no hotel for you to stay in."

And these people would throw a cot on the ground and lay right next to that Army soldier, right next to that Marine. And it was never any complaining, like, "Oh, where is my butler?" Or "Where is the Four Seasons Hotel?" Everybody that I came in contact with had one thing on their mind and that was "What can I do to help?"

developerWorks: Was it a challenge at all in selling this communication model you're talking about through Twitter, Facebook, the social media, to the upper command? I mean, what was that like?

Broshear: You know, believe it or not, a lot of people think that it would be very hard within the military to do that. But I think you're seeing a new era in military leadership. You're seeing leadership people who are colonels and generals now [that] grew up in the '90s as captains and majors and none of this technology is foreign to them.

You know, it used to be, say, in the '90s or the early 2000s, the leadership — the colonels and the generals in the military — were children of the '80s. So it didn't really resonate with them. But now you're seeing the leadership in the military. They really, really get it.

Most of the generals that I work with, most of the commanders that I work with, they have their own Facebook account. So when you say, "Hey, we need to set up a Facebook account to communicate with people back home," [they say] "OK. Do it."

The other thing I tell public relations professionals is your reputation is your currency. A good reputation allows for freedom of action. And when I tell other public relations professionals that, they get it.

When your boss trusts you that you have his best interests at mind and that you have a clear vision of what his marching orders are, so to speak, then you're able to take that forward and communicate it. And it's about trust. He has your trust and he understands that you have his vision when you communicate. So trust is very, very important.

developerWorks: Are you heading off to Chile right away?

Broshear: I leave tomorrow afternoon.

developerWorks: Well, stay safe, and let everyone know how much we are grateful for what they're doing.

Broshear: I will. I will.

And we have doctors and airmen down there right now and our C-130s are down there delivering patients the aid they need. So I can tell everybody that I'm not the hero here. I'm just the public relations guy. I have the privilege and honor of telling the story of those airmen, soldiers, and sailors, and Marines that are out there actually doing the great work for our country.

developerWorks: Capt. Nathan Broshear, United States Air Force, thanks so much for your time.

Broshear: Thank you.

developerWorks: This has been a developerWorks podcast. Check out more of our segments at ibm.com/developerworks or on iTunes. I'm Scott Laningham. Talk to you next time.

What's new in the developerWorks community?

developerWorks: But first, let's check in with developerWorks Newsletter editor John Swanson. Hey, John.

Swanson: Hey, Scott.

developerWorks: Now, John keeps an eye on things for us through the newsletter, and we always appreciate his perspective on new things and things that are hot on the Web site we should keep our eye on. John, what are we looking at this week?

Swanson: Well, we've got a couple things cooking in the newsletter this week. First, we're focusing on a download that's available on developerWorks this week. It's Lotus Symphony 1.3 which is the latest version of the Lotus® suite of office productivity software. It's available at no charge. It's the full product and it's based on the Open Document Format, so you're not tied to one specific vendor.

developerWorks: Excellent.

Swanson: And of course, developerWorks has plenty of resources for working with and developing for Lotus Symphony.

The newsletter now includes a new cloud computing section, which highlights the new content on the cloud computing resource center, our brand-new resource center on developerWorks, which we're also excited about.

So we've got this new section in the newsletter. So for new subscribers, that's one of the options you can choose when you subscribe. Or for existing subscribers, existing subscribers can go in and update their profiles and add cloud to their newsletter as a customized section.

developerWorks: You know, cloud is becoming a bigger part of our life all the time, isn't it? Don't you use a lot of stuff on the cloud, I mean, within work and outside of work, too?

Swanson: Yes. I've got a fair amount that going on. My wife actually uses a fair amount of it, too, in her job. So it's sort of becoming a part of, slowly becoming a part of everyday life, and it's becoming more mainstream.

developerWorks: Absolutely. And that way, we can never get away from all this information [LAUGHTER]

Swanson: And that's why we love it.

developerWorks: John Swanson, editor of developerWorks Newsletter. Thanks, John.

Swanson: Thank you, sir.

developerWorks: OK. Here are the new content highlights on the developerWorks home page this week:

Find it all at ibm.com/developerworks.

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