Arnie WeissmannMuch has been written about using social media effectively as a marketing tool and how it can help a business grow, but I recently came across a manual that put Web 2.0 into a context I hadn't previously considered: Our enterprises are literally at war, this handbook suggests, and Twitter, Facebook and other sites are powerful weapons, both for offense and defense.

"Information is an instrument of ... power and has complex components with no single center of control," the manual states. "Information is a strategic resource vital to ... security and allows communicators to shape the information battlefield."

The manual is titled "New Media and the Air Force," and it is published by the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, Emerging Technology Division. At 31 pages, it is succinct, comprehensive and surprisingly relevant to all businesses.

In the following paragraph, substitute "airmen" with "travel professionals," replace "the Air Force" with the name of your company and "enemy" with "competitors" or "competitive channels," and you begin to get a new perspective on the travel industry:

"Today, all airmen are communicators. All airmen are encouraged to use new and social media to communicate about topics within their areas of expertise, or their interests. If the Air Force does not tell its own story, someone else will. We now fight wars on multiple fronts, one of which is the information front. The Air Force needs to turn all of its airmen ... into communicators who combat negative influence of enemy propaganda, misinformation and misrepresentation."

Perhaps only Virgin Galactic will find all three of the defined battlegrounds -- "air, space and cyberspace" -- relevant, but otherwise, the guide is on target.

While the excerpts above might lead you to conclude that this is primarily a guide to effective propaganda, it repeatedly promotes transparency as an essential element to online communications, and its rules suggest the writers understand the implications of a platform that has no "single center of control."

Among its commandments are: "Replace error with fact, not argument"; "admit mistakes"; "no impersonations" (be upfront about who you are); and, my favorite, "stay in your lane," i.e., do not discuss areas for which you have no background or knowledge.

Don't lie, it urges. Don't be afraid to take calculated risks. And take note that "the enemy is engaged in this battlespace, and you must engage there as well."

The manual also lists the top 10 most popular "milblogs" (military blogs), whose titles suggest that many in the armed forces did not wait for guidelines to be issued before launching their own sites. Among the 10 are "Blackfive -- The Paratrooper of Love," "Afghanistan Without a Clue" and "Wordsmith at War."

Half cautionary tale, half how-to manual, the booklet, like all texts on the art of war, both motivates and alerts the readers to danger.

In its introductory pages, it notes that "the Air Force views personal websites and blogs positively" but injects an observation that applies to everyone, from soldiers to business communicators to teenagers on Facebook: "[On the Web, you] are always on the record. ... Good policies can ... help protect people from getting in trouble."

The booklet ends with encouragement to audit, measure, evaluate and benchmark social media efforts and a comprehensive glossary of terms.

Even if you feel you have a good understanding of the rules of engagement for social media, I'd encourage you to distribute this manual to all employees, not just those with social media duties in their job descriptions. Like it or not, these days we are all wordsmiths at war.

To download the manual, click here.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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