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Army recruiter’s group text that revealed phone numbers leads to mass confusion, warning

Soldiers talk with students at Arlington High School, Washington, in 2015. The Army recently issued a policy stressing the need to protect personally identifiable information when recruiting. (COURTESY OF US ARMY)

The Army has warned recruiters about using texts or social media to contact potential recruits after a mass text sent to high school parents near Indianapolis disclosed hundreds of personal cell phone numbers.

An Army policy sent out last week stressed the need to protect personally identifiable information and use only approved apps and websites. It also required recruiters to get prior written consent before emailing or texting a recipient’s mobile phone, a rule some said was too restrictive.

The restrictions came just days before the Army lowered its recruiting target this week from 80,000 — about 12,000 more than last year — to 76,500. As of March, six months into the recruiting year, the service had only brought in some 28,000 new soldiers, Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said Friday.

Since 2001, U.S. law has required schools that receive federal funding to give out contact information for juniors and seniors to military recruiters, colleges and prospective employers.

The Army has systems in place to protect that data, as well as other information gathered from prospects.

However, a local recruiter mistakenly sent the group text with incorrect settings. He’s since been counseled, the Army said.

Many parents and students at Brownsburg High School northwest of Indianapolis, Ind., didn’t even know the military had obtained their numbers until more than 200 of them received a group text offering to discuss Army careers last week.

One parent of twin boys at the school, Tammy Imel, said the text came to her phone when she was in the middle of a meeting with her company’s senior management in Chicago.

She quickly switched the phone to vibrate and stuffed it in her bag as a deluge of follow-texts from people asking to be taken off the group text poured in. She provided a screenshot of the text showing 249 addressees, not including some who had tried to leave the group.

“There were people that were mad … saying all kinds of nasty stuff,” Imel said of many responses.

After the new guidance was disseminated, recruiters took to the web to complain that restrictions on texting and social media deprive them of their most effective tools for reaching out to children of the digital age as they face pressure to reach recruiting targets and reverse years of Army drawdowns.

In announcing the reduction of recruiting targets, officials pledged not to lower standards to meet their goals.

Officials said the decision was a result of a lower-than-expected increase to the service’s end strength authorized by Congress this year and higher-than-usual retention rates.

Sgt. Major of the Army Daniel Dailey said he anticipated a “summer surge” in recruiting — new enlistments typically ramp up after graduation.

“I have all the confidence in the world that we’ll make the mission for the (fiscal year),” Dailey said.

However, confusion about what communications methods are allowed could complicate efforts to attract enough recruits.

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Sodano, a California Army National Guardsman who was an active duty recruiter in Southern California from 2012 to 2015, said most Americas teens and young adults don’t answer calls from unknown numbers and don’t check voicemail. But they do read texts.

“You usually get a reply back, even if it’s just ‘Go away, I’m not interested,’” he said.

The Army was already emphasizing social media when he went through recruiting school six years ago, he said.

Lately, the recruiting command has moved away from traditional mass marketing and cold-calling. Maj. Gen. Snow, the command’s top leader, told Defense One in October that he was impressed by recruiters’ abilities to “leverage” sites like Facebook and other apps to reach the young people.

But some of those recruiters were told last week to halt such methods, according to a screenshot of an apparent internal email posted in an online forum.

“Back to the basics, ladies and gentleman,” it said. “Telephone calls and face to face.”

Many current recruiters complained in the online forum that “the basics” don’t work anymore. Stars and Stripes contacted some recruiters but they refused to allow their names to be used or declined to comment at all, fearing command retribution.

Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for the recruiting command, said the latest guidance was simply meant to reinforce existing rules on data protection and not ban the use of texts and social media altogether.

“However, they need to move the conversation to the office, phone or an approved, secure website when the discussion goes beyond the individual’s general information,” she said in an email.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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