The Indian Armed Forces on Social Media: Reimagining the Narrative

Introduction

India’s Armed Forces are among the largest in the world. They embody the will of the Indian people. In return, their high morale and cohesion provide a sense of well-being and confidence to the masses. What has significantly changed in this relationship is the nature of the mission, which now includes growing domestic security, safety and administrative responsibilities. The fallout includes greater public visibility and scrutiny. Mission success under these conditions demands sustained support from the masses. Consequently, public perception has become a critical factor in military planning and operations.

Paradoxically, public perception is becoming increasingly hard to cultivate, in spite of latent goodwill and faith reposed in the Armed Forces. Perceptions today are also liable to change within a blink of an eye, given the speed at which content propagates within a susceptible, angst-ridden society. The Indian Armed Forces are especially vulnerable, given the traditionally restricted scope of civil-military dialogue. This is aggravated by limitations in scope and thought, obsolescence in practice, and a centralised, top-down, unwieldy, at-arms-length approach to public relations. The inability to stay abreast of, and optimally leverage optimal social engagement methods is preventing the Armed Forces’ narrative from becoming accessible to a larger audience, which is routinely exposed to a disproportional amount of negative commentary on social media. This is adversely affecting the military’s image and gradually eroding its brand image.

Social media engagement is undoubtedly the biggest influencer of public perception today and will be a focus of this piece, since the potential for brand enhancement is immense. The social media success of India’s paramilitary organisations, Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) and select examples from other Armed Forces signifies the potential gains that may be achieved, based on better ‘design’ of content, a robust PR ‘structure’ empowered with speed of trust across the hierarchy, and healthier ‘interaction’ with the masses.

The Indian Armed Forces’ Social Media Score Card: Untested Assumptions, Misguided Efforts

The Indian Army, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy manage social media channels, largely showcasing promotional activity, inputs about visits, exercises, appointments, community support activities and trivia about past battles and military heroes. Focusing primarily on events and activities, they rarely communicate the vision, mission and ideas of the organisation, assuming that the audience will figure this out on their own. This failing could be due to an inability to understand the target audience, or an unwillingness to address their expectations, instrumental in most perception management failures. These issues, their impact and possible solutions are discussed below by first focusing on ‘design and treatment’ of content – an execution-related issue, and then moving on strategy and planning.

Quality of Recruitment and the Inefficacy of Promotional Videos

The Indian Armed Forces suffer from a perennial staffing problem, unable to attract the right quality of talent in spite of changes in terms of service or huge spends on promotional activities. Considering that the Armed Forces offer decent pay, perks, privileges, as well as intangible benefits like job security and respectability, doubts about better opportunities elsewhere leading to a shortfall in talent are not fully merited, given the one lakh plus average, trainable, high integrity individuals entering the work force every month. But what if we are unknowingly targeting only a narrow pool of talent in the first place?

Presently, social media promotional activities revolve around motivational videos and eye-catching advertisements with a call for action around key themes like adventure, physical exhilaration, high technology and challenging leadership avenues. This has two problems. First, it indicates that the profession is only suitable for adrenalin junkies, weeding out the majority from the candidate pool. Secondly, by focusing 80% of promotional content on 10% of actual roles / tasks, it sets incorrect expectations in the minds of a candidate. Since one can’t leave the Armed Forces at will, this gets passed on to a disillusioned candidate pool who opt not to take a chance. The other lacuna with promotional activity is that the branding is designed as per the ‘insider’s view of what a potential recruit will get swayed by’, which is validated by the steady stream of ‘self-aggrandisement’ themed promotional activity over the decades. There are three suggestions to improve this activity:

(i) Appealing to a mass audience: Consider the universal, time-tested expectations of job-seekers. These include self-esteem, advancement, feedback, public adulation, up-skilling, etc1. All these attributes can be realised at an Armed Forces desk as effectively as on a high-adrenalin field assignment. A predominant focus on high-energy, action-oriented messaging weeds out a larger pool of potential candidates, who may have preferred a less action-oriented career. Importantly, in a society where parents play a major part in career decisions, promotion activity focused on the job seeker solely has the disadvantage of playing up risks vis-à-vis benefits from the parents’ perspective, further narrowing the talent pool. In trying to project an Armed Forces career as an attractive differentiator vis-à-vis other professions, there exists a risk of alienating the public, a majority of whom are seeking job security and stability.

(ii) Including contemporary concerns into the narrative to cater to an entirely new audience set: Millennials prefer individual attention over social approval, and tend to seek out a career that matches unique lifestyle expectations2. Instead of a value proposition focused on patriotism, pride, valour, and courage, promotional messaging could be made more relevant by focusing on sustainability, freedom of expression and other hooks of national purpose, beyond security. While it is not recommended to lift and shift campaigns from another culture, a military recruitment campaign from Norway could be a good pointer, which reflects national values and purpose without a single direct reference to military roles and tasks3. Similarly, non-traditional aspirations relevant to the target audience could be integrated within promotional campaigns.

(iii) Infusing fresh language and a wider range of emotions: Moving beyond the use of heavy emotions, messaging could reflect an element of ‘fun-in-adventure’. Fresh college and school graduates, while aspiring to a life of great deeds and sacrifices in uniform, also tend to associate the profession with a life of perpetual seriousness. A training academy video from the USAF is informative in this regard, significant in that it carries risky content, done in a fun and matter-of-fact manner. In contrast to paratroopers breaking into a sweat before a jump, a clip of young trainees jumping off planes without batting an eyelid makes the larger-than-life become achievable4.

The point being made is that we need to sell reality, and provide hooks relevant to the present generation. If the hooks don’t work, it may mean that we are portraying a wrong reality – of the job being all action, loaded with heavy emotions, and markedly different from a nine to five lifestyle.

A detailed assessment of promotional activities and recruitment messaging may also help the Armed Forces reinvent themselves. The successful ‘walk-the-talk’ by the IAF with regards to its ‘women power’ campaign opened up opportunities for an entire demography, and enhanced the credibility of its engagement efforts. This is critical, because no amount of appealing content will sway today’s youth if there exists a marked difference between values exhorted and actions / conduct on ground. It can be safely assumed that every candidate and their parent will scrutinise Armed Forces’ activities carefully. In this context, sustaining the larger narrative will remain critical.

Social engagement, because everyone else is doing it: The Armed Forces’ social media handles have a healthy followership, upwards of a few million in the Indian Army’s case. But a major reason for this is the nation’s latent support for the men in uniform – a well-wisher premium. This number does not reflect the popularity enjoyed by other social media influencers, a main reason being that these handles are not able to establish a unique identity. They largely replicate official content or post commemorative content which is also shared by other social media pages and individuals. In following this process, the Armed Forces fail to appreciate the stark difference in engagement objectives, criteria, audience types, etc. between the official and online engagement mediums, one of which is to constantly hone engagement based on audience ‘feedback’, the ability to hear, interpret and refine engagement.

A social engagement strategy must have clarity about the strategic purpose of engagement, and unique call to action. These could be fundamental perception building queries like – what do citizens think of the Armed Forces?, who are its major supporters / detractors and why?, and, is there a changing trend in the public’s perception of the Armed Forces?, etc. all of which boil down to an important question – how relevant are the Armed Forces to India’s public today? A few thousand likes, shares or mentions are by themselves no indicators of any of these queries.

Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) across India provide a good example of online community engagement, in spite of traditional structural and social handicaps. They too have to work around tightly controlled and centralised communication protocols. Moreover, as a public service dealing with law and order, their relations with society have traditionally bordered on fear, hostility and even anger. From their humour-infused and empathetic interactions, it is clear that an important ‘strategic imperative’ was to mitigate their ‘confrontationist’ dynamic with the public. Their focus on reassurance and their receptivity to inputs from the public has been instrumental in unearthing issues, building confidence and encouraging positive community relations. In addition, by generating objective debates around constructive topics like safety and well-being, they are able to avoid politicising the narrative, weed out extreme opinions, and still generate healthy participation and support from the masses.

Twitter Handle

(A)

Account setup date

(B)

No. of Tweets

(as on 30 Jul 2018)

(C)

Followers

 

(D)

Likes by the page


(E)

Engagement factor E = C/E

Bengaluru Police Aug 2012 75,700

(1,066 per month)

1.24 Million (Mn) 12,600

E=6

Mumbai Police Dec 2015 69,600

2,245 per month)

4.62 Mn 2,236

E=31

Indian Army Feb 2013 7,555

(113 per month)

5.59 Mn 63

E=120

Indian Air Force Oct 2016 1,394

(66 per month)

173,000 122

E=11

Indian Navy Jun 2016 6,335

(253 per month)

99,000 255

E=25

BSF Mar 2015 2,907

(72 per month)

200,000 1909

E=1.5

CRPF Jul 2016 5,454

(227 per month)

196,000 7373

E=0.7

 

*The per month figures above do not reflect actuals, but denote an average over the handle’s existence. What distinguishes the Armed Forces /Paramilitary forces from the LEAs in the above graphic are the frequency of their tweets. Since military/paramilitary forces do not have a direct public interface in their daily working, this is understandable. But as public scrutiny increases, and as they begin to earn greater mindshare among the population, their number of interactions (number of tweets, for example) should ideally increase.

*Engagement Factor (E): indicates the handles’ liking of other content (their external engagement on Twitter) relative to their own broadcasts. BSF and CRPF have fewer number of overall tweets, comparable to the Armed Forces, but have substantial followership, which can be partially attributed to their engagement factor of 1.5 and 0.7. Such engagement makes an handle seem opinionated but also accessible. This could be a reason for their relative popularity, compared to the Indian Air Force or the Indian Navy.

As public interface and the public’s mindshare increases with respect to military matters, greater amount of social media interaction focused on sharing relevant content and addressing concerns. Only then can we expect to credibly provide the necessary ‘context’ about military life, roles and operations to an audience that is likely to benefit from better quality awareness and knowledge. The ideal social engagement strategy will straddle the two halves between restraining opinion and sharing profusely, with the ideal balance arrived at by focusing on the larger strategic queries posed above, and refining the strategy periodically. Thus, a healthy civil-military dialogue would require the Armed Forces to take charge of the narrative, in contrast to their present day passive approach.

Surrendering the Narrative: Today, the Armed Forces’ external communication activity is ‘awareness’ oriented. This, however, is not sufficient to change perceptions. With multiple sources and conflicting opinions populating the national discourse, attention spans are getting severely constrained, encouraging snap judgments based not on objectivity, but emotions and sentimental appeal. Managing reputation under this reality requires sustained, constructive engagement, with a built-in ability to respond in near-real time to damaging / defamatory content. Failure to institutionalise this will result in a slow erosion of reputation and brand of the Armed Forces built over centuries and after countless sacrifices.

This is all the more pressing, given that a minority opinion wielding a false counter-point can, even unwittingly bring disrepute to the Armed Forces. A recent example of this includes an op-ed by an Indian US based journalist, on Pakistan’s election outcome. His contention was that for an Imran Khan-like figure to rise politically in India, he won’t be able to rely on the army to help him gain top office, since Indian generals would be busy playing golf, rather than playing politics5. Inserting comments totally irrelevant to the argument and taken out of context is how spoilers claim glory by insinuating organisations which have limited capacity for recourse.

Even veterans of high repute resort to public bashing of the Armed Forces. Lt. Gen. Panag’s media trial about a sub-judice matter involving a serving officer reflects the kind of reputational damage the Armed Forces may have to regularly contend with, even if done unwittingly, or in their ‘best’ interests6.  Rather than treating these as solitary cases, the damage needs to be appreciated from the perspective of a steady loss of confidence among the public, given the numerous misquotes and allegations that form part of a daily commentary. The handicap of not being able to rebut encourages brand-bashing among such activists to the detriment of the Armed Forces. This is also likely to have long-term adverse effect on the serving rank and file who get caught in the cross-fire, and on potential talent who may harbour second thoughts about a career in the Armed Forces.

Controlling damage and restoring public faith would require real-time spotting of such content and a quick rebuttal in a matter of hours. In order to deter such activity, subsequent actions should be followed up expeditiously. A positive fallout of a good image on social media is the possibility of self-enforcing similar standards on ground by serving personnel. There are enough example of ‘unit’ ethos and culture bringing about positive change in personalities, and creating a good social media brand can only add to it.

Meaningful engagement around relevant concerns and narratives can be achieved using three prongs, focused on the official organs of communications/ public relations, serving personnel who can act as eyes and ears, and the columns of passive supporters outside the system who can force-multiply official efforts.

Upgrading the Quality of Our Official Communications: The essence of a successful perception management strategy is accuracy, unambiguity and timely response. To achieve this, the Armed Forces need to modify their PRO-based centralised information control/dissemination structure – by integrating a OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) decision model, employed widely in military planning. This would require a clear chain of command from the PRO down to field formations and include: (1) Facilities for improving situational awareness at each level, (2) A structure and method for sharing of information in real time between elements, and (3) A decision/escalation matrix to respond to unforeseen situations. The model would need to be adequately flexible to ensure quick learning through necessary trainings/tools, to build confidence in the system through positive relationships and transparency, and to enable pro-activeness in response. Success will depend on routine coordination at multiple levels. The basic structure would revolve around PROs and field formations as a hub and spoke model, with ownership over observing and acting (disseminating online or on-ground). It could extend upward to the Chief’s office, for orientation and decision, completing the respective service linkage. Depending on the nature of the issue, it could further link up to the MoD, the Integrated HQs and the other two services. In addition, coordination with agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) could help craft appropriate responses to sensitive issues within the ambit of international law, potentially enhancing international credibility. Frequency and type of coordination needs to be refined with an aim to keep the lower levels orientated about issues and potential fallouts, while on the other hand enabling them to pass relevant ‘observations’ up the chain in quick time.

The OODA Loop, originally conceptualised by Col John Boyd, USAF (Ret.)

(Source: Patrick Edwin Moran[i])

 

Sensitising Serving Personnel About Their Role and Influence in Brand Building: The BSF jawan video clip of Jan 2017 complaining about the poor quality of food served8 indicates that official information control measures can be conveniently subverted by disgruntled elements, that content about the Armed Forces has a high potential of gaining virality (in this case abetted by adversaries across the border), and that in the confusion leading up to identifying the elements responsible, allied organisations may suffer damage, in this case the Indian Army. Given this reality check, it is recommended that while the PRO remains the hub of the model, all serving personnel need to be included in the larger narrative. While not expecting the individual units to interface with the public (except in case of crises), it is imperative that all should clearly understand the vision of the organisation.The consistency in thought, action and projection across the chain of command adds to the credibility of official communications. A proactive step in this direction would be to designate ‘situational awareness, communication and engagement officers’ at the unit / field level. These can act as the pivot around which the command’s vision and mission is communicated down the chain, in exchange for sharing local sentiment and information with the apex.

A positive outcome of understanding the larger picture may also infuse empathy among people removed from the decision matrix. Rational and consistent interactions on this pattern is likely to positively impact morale and discipline, and possibly deter public outpouring of disgruntled behaviour.

The personnel could be selected from local intelligence formations and could be linked with regional / central PROs. With Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) from social channels providing valuable inputs regarding community sentiment and enhancing situational awareness, this will also partially serve the intelligence mandate of the formations.It is assumed that these individuals would have a base level of understanding about modern communication techniques, mass psychology, and emerging social issues, which could be further honed. This cadre can then be expanded, to include personnel from units, to be trained by these individuals. Aside from linking hierarchies and mapping sentiment on the ground, these units could also be trained to respond to emergent situations proactively, and provide appropriate inputs to higher formations in quick time.

To augment this, the Armed Forces should consider institutionalising perception management training cells at training institutions beginning with junior courses and extending up to higher command curriculum, incrementally covering the tactical, operational and strategic nuances of the topic. A positive fallout of this could be an enhancement of critical thinking among personnel, and a more empathetic view of decision and policies afforded by a bigger picture understanding of the operational context.

Promoting Supporters and Converting Fence-Sitters: An option that can be put into action in quick time would be to cultivate external sources – supporters, veterans and stakeholders – including academics, journalists, etc. who are both interested and knowledgeable on service matters and who have a strong followership on social channels. These individuals can force-multiply the efforts of the Armed Forces by acting as their eyes and ears, while operating in arms-length manner, so as to maintain objectivity and ensure credibility. This may involve imaginative thinking, like the commissioning of ‘unofficial’ handles controlled by official spokespersons, which can permit sharing of a wider range of opinion. The Armed Forces could set up a working group involving such personalities which can meet at regular intervals to enhance collaboration potential. A key deliverable of such a collaboration should be to identify brand damaging content in real-time and create a response strategy within a defined time window, preferably not extending beyond 24 hours from the time the issue first surfaced. Executing such a mandate would require a skilled team under the auspices of the PRO, comprising social media experts, sociologists, and military scholars straddling the middle and senior management of the Armed Forces. It should also have a legal element, to coordinate with neutral bodies like the ICRC, study clauses and precedents, and analyse avenues to craft appropriate responses to all contingencies, within the auspices of international law.

Conclusion

For those equating this ‘capacity enhancement’ proposal with a double-edged sword need to keep in mind the numerous cases of disgruntled individuals and the ready-to-strike capabilities of adversaries who can easily augment these efforts, as was done in the BSF video clip case. Under such onslaught of misinformation, maintaining credibility will be difficult, unless countered in quick time. Other militaries have become wise to this, and are building capacity to mitigate such damage. One among many recent examples of such social media rebuttals came within 12 hours, by a handle supporting Israeli security forces9. The force-multiplier effect is there for all to observe.

While it may be that “the truth does not ever quite catch up with the initial lie if the initial lie is emotional and juicy enough”,10 countering baseless allegations and outright lies should be an important responsibility of militaries, which set the benchmark for national unity and cohesion. The Indian Armed Forces today remain a comfort zone for anyone seeking their support, and a home for anyone who has served in uniform. They stand for respect, order, uniformity, accountability and dedication, which can inspire and motivate society like few other. Appreciating this larger goal, it is high time the Indian Armed Forces took control over their social narrative and reimagined their engagement with the Indian people.

References:

1     https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293605705_Career_Expectations_and_Organizational_ commitment_of_Millennials_in_Indian_IT_industry_-_An_SHRM_perspective

2     http://www-personal.umich.edu/~prestos/Downloads/DC/pdfs/Redman_Sept29_TwengeCampbell2008.pdf

3     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B_TlHJq1-4

4     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUo8REevWQM

5     https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/what-pakistan-teaches-india-one-or-two-good-decades-is-not-enough-to-guarantee-a-smooth-path-to-development/

6     https://www.newslaundry.com/2018/06/07/panag-major-gogoi-indian-army-transgressions-human-shield

7     https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3904554

8     https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/pak-sites-lapped-up-jawans-video/article18700988.ece

9     https://twitter.com/TheMossadIL/status/1027572117431361537

10           https://www.weeklystandard.com/jenna-lifhits/deepfake-videos-are-a-national-security-threat

 

(Squadron Leader Anshuman Mainkar (Retd.) served with the IAF (2003-14) as a Fighter Pilot and Air Intelligence Officer. A Computer Science graduate from the National Defence Academy, he also holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He heads the Strategic Intelligence, Communications and Engagement team at Reliance Global Corporate Security. He can be reached at @anshumig /anshuman.mainkar@ gmail.com Views expressed are personal.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of September-October 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

 

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