By Geoff Fein and John Robinson

Boeing [BA] is conducting an internal investigation into a nascent social media effort after a company spokesman posed as an independent blogger and sat in on several briefings of archrival Northrop Grumman [NOC] at a trade show last week.

Doug Cantwell, a company spokesman who works out of one of Boeing’s Washington state facilities, preregistered for last week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicles System International (AUVSI) symposium as an "independent blogger" working for Defensedialogue.com, according to a spokeswoman for AUVSI.

By not identifying himself as a Boeing employee, Cantwell went against company policy, Dan Beck, a Boeing a spokesman, told Defense Daily yesterday. "Boeing policy is clear."

"Cantwell was told to go to AUVSI as a Boeing employee to enhance his knowledge on UAVs," Beck said. "Whether he would be writing for a media site or for Boeing wasn’t defined. Attending a conference like this and indentifying as an independent blogger would be contrary to Boeing policy."

Although Beck declined to delve into details of the investigation, one issue likely being explored is whether Cantwell acted as a "rogue operator" or was simply following orders from higher-ups at Defensedialogue.com to generate material for the effort, which had tentatively planned to launch this fall.

Defensedialogue.com is one of many efforts Boeing is exploring to provide company commentary, Beck said. Whois.net, a domain name search engine, shows that Defensedialogue.com is owned by Boeing. The site was created on May 1, 2009 and ownership of the domain name expires May 1, 2011.

Leading the effort to develop Defensedialogue.com is former BusinessWeek writer Stanley Holmes, whom Boeing recently hired as a corporate communicator. Beck said Holmes, who used to cover Boeing as a Seattle correspondent for the magazine, is a manager within the company’s Integrated Defense Systems. When contacted by Defense Daily on Monday, Holmes referred all questions to Beck. Cantwell did not return calls from Defense Daily.

As the Defensedialogue.com project was beginning to take shape months ago, Holmes told sources in the media that the site would be independent, though edited by him–a Boeing employee.

At this year’s Paris Air Show in June, Holmes spoke very openly of the effort at a dinner with several members of the trade press. In one instance after the trade show, he boasted that Defensedialogue.com would "put [the trade publications] out of business," according to sources.

Beck strongly rejected Holmes’ remarks, saying they did not represent company policy.

"Those statements were unauthorized and misrepresent Boeing’s approach to social media," Beck said. "We have no intention of having a site that is planned to replace or circumvent other news gathering organizations."

He added that the site would not be independent and would be branded as a Boeing product and clearly identified as such.

Beck noted Boeing is still exploring what the company’s role will be in the evolving world of social media.

"This was one part of an overall approach that would have looked at ways to communicate by way of social media," he said. "It’s still a work in progress."

It is unclear if Boeing will proceed with Defensedialogue.com, Beck added.

If Defensedialogue.com was seeking to perform an undercover operation at the symposium, Cantwell, a former spokesman for Northrop Grumman, was not a very clever choice for the job.

He attended Northrop Grumman briefings on unmanned systems on Global Hawk and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) systems Aug. 11 and for Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) and Bat the following day, according to an industry source. After the Bat briefing on Aug. 12, a member of the trade press alerted a Northrop Grumman communications representative that Cantwell had attended the briefing, the source added. After being confronted by his former employer, Cantwell admitted that he was writing for the blog Defensedialogue.com and registered as an "independent blogger" for the symposium, the source added. Northrop Grumman contacted AUVSI officials, who confirmed that Cantwell was registered as media and had not disclosed that he was a Boeing employee. Northrop Grumman officials told Cantwell that his attendance was a professional breach of courtesy, the source said.

It is not unusual for communications officials to discretely drift in and out of briefings of rival companies, but they are typically badged appropriately, which was not the case with Cantwell.

Regarding the incident with Cantwell, Northrop Grumman spokesman Randy Belote told Defense Daily yesterday "This breach of protocol is both inappropriate and unfortunate."

The spokeswoman for AUVSI said that Cantwell told her he was writing "unbiased articles" for Defensedialogue.com–which is consistent with how Holmes had described the effort to at least one source earlier–the official added. AUVSI has specific requirements for media attendance at its events, the spokeswoman said, to make sure people registering as media are legitimate. Because Cantwell provided his Boeing e-mail address there was a question as to whether he was a legitimate media rep, the spokeswoman added.

Cantwell was asked to provide material and he sent a full-page mock-up of the Defensedialogue.com website. The AUVSI spokeswoman described the mock-up of the site as a defense media hub designed to influence debate and project the company view with stories by Boeing writers.

"That’s how it was presented to us," she said. Cantwell told her the blog would launch in September.

Cantwell was provided a media badge, which also enabled him to register free of charge.

As a result of the incident, the spokeswoman said that AUVSI would have to reexamine its policy on credentialing media and consider "retroactively charging" Boeing.

The flap comes as the Pentagon and its contractors are experimenting with social media. Many contractors have a presence on social media sites, in some cases with actual pages of business units on Facebook, for example. In addition, many corporate communicators are on Facebook and Twitter, using them as tools to reach out the media. Senior military leaders also use Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. As of yet, the Pentagon does not have a uniform policy on social media. For now, the military services are moving in different directions. While some services have been moving aggressively, the Marine Corps recently imposed a blackout on using its network to access social sites.