Cities tell better stories to keep military bases open

When the government announces plans to close a military base, local politicians rush out in opposition. And each time, their comms grow more intricate.

When the government announces plans to close a military base, local politicians rush out in opposition. And each time, their comms grow more intricate.

Since the end of the Cold War, most people have agreed that America has too many military bases. Some were inconveniently located; some were outdated; some were staffed for threats that were no longer existent. It has been conventional wisdom for decades, therefore, that some of them should be closed. The entire political spectrum, from peace-loving liberals to far-right conservatives, all accept that premise.

But no politician has ever embraced the proposition that a military base in his own district should be closed. It would wipe out thousands of jobs; it would be a grievous setback to national security; it would devastate a longstanding local economy.

The tension between these two standpoints - on the one hand, fiscal and military imperative; on the other hand, political NIMBYism - means that every round of proposed base closings sets off a nationwide scramble by various localities to make their case to the independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

The latest round of BRAC hearings, which wrapped up late last month, showcased the extent to which communications professionals and specialized lobbying firms can make or break the future of some of the nation's most high-profile military establishments.

The base closure process has two main parts: First, the Pentagon draws up a list of hundreds of facilities that it believes can be shuttered or whose operations should be consolidated elsewhere. Then, the BRAC Commission holds extensive hearings and issues a set of recommendations drawn from that list, which is sent to the President for approval.

This year, the Naval Submarine Base New London, located in Groton, CT, was on the Pentagon's list for closure. The state of Connecticut enlisted The Washington Group (TWG), a Ketchum-affiliated lobbying firm, along with Ketchum's public affairs practice, to help plead the base's case before the commission. Their role was emergency assistance. "By the time we came in, there were many people in Connecticut who had been working on this for a long time, including departments of the state government," says Jim Noone, an SVP at TWG.

The Groton base was the Pentagon's largest and most sought-after closure target, with nearly 8,500 jobs. The stakes were high for both sides. TWG's main role was to coordinate the efforts of teams in both Connecticut and DC, and prepare them for the BRAC hearings. But the battle was not fought only in private rooms with the commission's staff; TWG and Ketchum used the media to their advantage, as well.

"Media played a tremendous role in this," says Noone. "It's clear that they were seeing media reports. Their staff was preparing for the commission a daily summary of stories from around the country on BRAC."

The Connecticut team even enlisted former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia native, to write a letter on the base's behalf, a gesture the commission noted in its hearings. In the end, the base was spared, dealing a blow to the Pentagon, but counting as a coup for the state and its team of consultants. It also served notice that base closures might be becoming harder for the government.

"It has evolved in the sense that there's a lot more sophisticated representation" than in past decades, says Noone. "PR firms, lobbying firms, law firms were much in evidence this time. ... Many communities have had representation for years, trying to advance their cause."

The rise of PR

Indeed, the BRAC process becomes markedly more advanced with each round. Gene Grabowski, now a VP at Levick Strategic Communications, was an AP reporter covering the proposed closure of a Philadelphia shipyard in 1980. At that time, he recalls, outside specialists were rare. "All of the communications that I got came from the senator's office or the members of Congress," he says. "Today, of course, the first group that you'd hear from would be a group created by a PR firm."

By the end of the 1980s, Grabowski says, lobbyists had gone from chatting strictly off the record to telling him how to spell their names. The value of PR in the base-closure process had been thoroughly established, even then. "Now PR is the overarching strategy, and lobbying is a component," he says.

Of course, many lobbyists would object to that assertion. But the base-closure process has been going on long enough now that some specialty firms have evolved to encompass a blend of PR, lobbying, and military technical expertise.

One such firm is Madison Government Affairs (MGA), whose president, Paul Hirsch, was director of review and analysis for the 1991 BRAC Commission. Hirsch recommends that clients get a head start on the BRAC process and allow their firms to do an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the base from a military and budgetary perspective. Ideally, the base can fix its vulnerabilities in time to avoid being placed on the Pentagon's list.

If that doesn't work, MGA's next step is to apply its expertise to the Pentagon's analysis and "shoot holes in it." The firm also helps bases prepare for on-site visits by the commission, which have "some potential for influence," says Hirsch.

The commission and its staff are saddled with an inordinate amount of work, which can open the door for expert consultants to find the chinks in government arguments. "You have to show where the military value is not enhanced [by a closure]," says Hirsch. "There's no silver bullet. There are multiple bullets."

Paul Sweet, an SVP with Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations, worked (successfully) on behalf of Scott Air Force Base in Illinois during this year's BRAC process. "The commission [this year] had been swayed by their visits to the installations," Sweet says, explaining that carefully planned meetings can make a point stick in the commissioners' minds. "All these issues were brought to their attention by the PR effort at the local level."

The Spectrum Group, another consulting firm with BRAC expertise that boasts a roster of retired military experts, places its emphasis more on technical expertise than on creative media relations programs.

Skip Hall, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who leads Spectrum's BRAC practice, says, "If you are going to turn a negative decision around, the fundamental thing you need to do is find some flaw or some error" in the Pentagon's analysis. He credits the commission with being "extremely open to dialogue," and acknowledges that PR has at least a secondary place in that dialogue. "Does that have an impact on the staff? It may have, on a subliminal level," he says. "You can't ignore it."

Refining the message

Sometimes, though, politicians will revert to their natural media-friendly tendencies to drum up interest in a proposed base closure. Sen. John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has taken to calling the BRAC process "rigged" in order to rally support for bases he wants to keep open.

Eric Lundberg, an MD at Qorvis Communications, has had an inside look at the issue in his role as chairman of the Fairfax County, VA, Republican Party. "My guess is [Warner is] laying groundwork for a legal challenge," Lundberg says. "He's not arguing merits; he's arguing, 'Wait a minute, this whole process is rigged,' which is a fairly different message."

The outcome of that particular battle has yet to be determined. But those who have participated in BRAC contests in the past agree that the entire process is only becoming more refined each time around.

Tom Hoog, a former Hill & Knowlton CEO who worked to preserve bases in Cleveland and Charleston, SC, with H&K in the mid-1990s, has seen the evolution firsthand.

"The job is to tell the story in as persuasive a manner as possible," he says. "Any elected official who chooses to take no action, or cannot avail himself or herself of media attention, is sort of signing [his or her] death warrant."

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