Editor’s note: This version has been updated to accurately reflect the USMC’s involvement with Terminal Lance.
Can you imagine being responsible for 3.2 million employees? How about communicating with them? Unless you’re the CEO of Walmart or McDonalds the answer to those questions is probably “No.” The Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world with more than 1.4 million active duty servicemen and women and over 1.1 million National Guardsmen and Reservists (plus 700,000+ civilians). An organization with such scale presents an interesting challenge — how do you effectively communicate with an audience that large? How do you communicate to the public? What do you do when disaster strikes?
Our clients often have those same questions. Here are five things we can learn from military public affairs:
1. Crisis Communications
Seventeen minutes after the first shots were fired on September 16, 2013, at Washington Navy Yard, @USNavy was already tweeting. The Navy became the trusted source on the incident and they were able to control the flow of information for the duration of the crisis. The Navy did such a great job providing consistent and transparent communication that Twitter did a case study on the incident, saying, “Twitter became the news wire on that day; the Navy’s Tweets were the news bulletins.” You’ll find this type of response across all military branches because it’s muscle memory for them as a result of their countless hours of training. They embrace the idea that if you fail to plan, you should plan to fail.
2. Employee Engagement
The United States Marine Corps is known for a great many things, but few point to its humor and irreverence. Watch a show like Generation Kill or read a comic series like Terminal Lance and you’ll see this immediately. Rather than fight that culture and pretend like it doesn’t exist, the Marine Corps has largely embraced it. Last year the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, made himself available for a video town hall meeting. They solicited questions from Marines on Facebook and Twitter using #AskCMC and General Amos answered them. Some of the questions were pretty tough (e.g. “How can the Commandant lead the Marine Corps in a reawakening without a ground combat record?”), but they didn’t shy away. Embracing the culture of your organization and communicating in a transparent and authentic way on platforms that your employees actually use is something the military does really well. As communicators, we should take note.
3. Media Relations
If you’ve been to New York, you know it’s pretty difficult to get tickets to Jimmy Fallon. So you can probably imagine how hard it is to get your organization on his show as a guest. When the Navy Reserve was celebrating their Centennial earlier this year, they secured an extremely favorable placement on the show that involved Vice Admiral Robin Braun commissioning 100 new Navy Reserve recruits on live television. Similarly, the Army convinced Stephen Colbert to go through Army bootcamp and shave his head in solidarity while visiting Iraq. Not only was that a huge media sensation, but it also gave the soldiers a momentary taste of home and a huge morale boost. Sure, everyone loves to support the troops, but it still requires strategic planning and execution to identify and pitch creative opportunities. The military has an extremely robust media relations operation that is both proactive and reactive. They are looked to for information during times of crisis, so investing in those relationships during times of need allows them to be proactive in the future.
4. Content Strategy
If it’s true that people “eat with their eyes,” then the U.S. military is a 5-star restaurant. From Army training missions in Afghanistan to Air Force paratroopers jumping from a C-130J Super Hercules over Bulgaria, military public affairs professionals consistently produce compelling images and creative videos to engage employees, family and the general public. Their strategy is simple: Tell visual stories from across the world and leverage the social web to get those stories in front of people back home and abroad.
And boy does it work. Just look at the engagement on the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Army Facebook pages. And in the comments you’ll see proud Americans, nostalgic veterans, homesick active duty, and future recruits all talking together. Understanding your audience and leveraging the resources you have (even if you don’t have cool airplanes) to tell visual stories is key to any content strategy and the military is leading the way.
5. Campaign Planning
On May 13, 2015, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced several groundbreaking personnel initiatives during a speech at the United States Naval Academy. As he was speaking, the Navy was sharing quotes and additional resources in real-time. His team prepared pre-recorded videos addressing each initiative, understanding that there would be additional questions, and drove social traffic to those videos. He also made the full text of his speech available online for anyone to read. It is obvious that SECNAV Mabus wanted to be crystal clear and transparent about his #PeopleMatter campaign and that likely came from months of planning and coordination. Due to the flood of information, Sailors were left with answers instead of questions and excitement instead of confusion. This flawless execution can be applied to any major corporate announcement and is a great reminder that planning across the spectrum of earn media, owned media and social media is extremely valuable.
Joe Scannell is an Account Executive on the Digital Crisis team in Washington, DC. He is also a Public Affairs Officer in the United States Navy Reserve. You can follow him on Twitter for tweets about tech, politics, and Chicago sports.
Image credit: The Joint Staff