You probably haven't heard all that much lately about the United
States Military Academy at West Point, but get ready: A media blitz is
headed your way. March 16 marks the bicentennial of the army academy's
founding, and seemingly every media outlet in the land is planning to
The school's public affairs office is led by Lt. Col. Jim Whaley, who
was promoted to PA director from public information chief last
Whaley's strategy is to use the bicentennial for West Point's future PR
efforts - especially because he is determined to reach audiences outside
the typical army constituency.
The PA office, with 24 employees (all but three are civilians), has a
budget of $23,000 for such things as travel and supplies, so it
can ill afford advertising or outside agencies. (It received an
additional $300,000 for bicentennial materials such as a video,
PSA, VNR, brochure, poster, and media kit.)
The office is divided into four branches: community relations, command
information (which includes an internal newspaper, TV channel, and radio
station), athletics information (the school has 21 Division I teams),
and public information (the three people who deal with outside
The school has 4,000 cadets who, upon graduation, receive a bachelor of
science degree and then serve a minimum of five years on active duty in
the US Army. As with other colleges, West Point must compete to attract
quality students, so its PR audiences include students, parents, alumni,
and high school guidance counselors and coaches. But it has others, such
as Congress (for funding) and tourists. Whaley is now also reaching out
to business leaders, as the school relies increasingly on private
Whaley, who grew up 35 miles north of West Point in Hyde Park, NY, spent
most of his military career in Germany and Panama as a helicopter
He didn't work at his second military occupational specialty, public
affairs, until about 15 years into his career (he has a journalism
degree and an MBA).
Colleagues say that Whaley is smart and creative, a risk taker who
understands PR. Siemens' SVP of corporate affairs and marketing Jack
Bergen, a West Point graduate and member of its public affairs advisory
committee, says that Whaley brings a helicopter pilot's aggressiveness
to the job. "Whaley is just head and shoulders above anyone we've seen
there before. The academy wasn't very proactive in getting out the kinds
of stories it needed to."
Powell Tate's Sheila Tate, also a member of the advisory group,
"The office has never been stronger in terms of talent and direction,"
she says. "He has a great team."
Getting the army talking
One of Whaley's biggest challenges is to confront the military's
traditional reluctance to talk about itself. "We need to let journalists
come in and meet with the faculty and the cadets," he says. "There are
risks, but the dividends far outweigh the liabilities."
He has an advantage in that his boss, Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., West
Point's superintendent as of this past June, backs his efforts. "Jim's
doing a great job," says Lennox. "We're a national treasure. The more we
tell the American people about what we're doing here, the better for the
academy and for the American people."
Although Whaley reports to Lennox, he must also let army public affairs
personnel know what he's working on - and sometimes, they don't like
For example, journalists' interest in the school increased after
September 11, and one of the media outlets that called was 60 Minutes -
a perilous event for any PR professional. The show wanted to interview
cadets to learn how they were reacting to the terrorist attacks and
The segment aired September 30. "The army was strongly against it,"
Whaley says. "They told me, 'This is your career if you do this.' My
feeling was if you don't do an interview with 60 Minutes now, when will
you do it? And it was a great piece. Viewers took away from it, 'Hey, we
don't have anything to worry about.'"
Another project the army is a little nervous about is a March conference
called "The World Redefined" that the school is hosting with Tina
Brown's Talk magazine and UBS PaineWebber. "In the middle of the
bicentennial year, we'll have heavy hitters in business, education, and
politics here to discuss how the world's been redefined after September
11," says Whaley, adding, "You have to take some educated, calculated
Starting from the beginning
Whaley says that when he took over in April, West Point didn't even have
a communications plan for its 200th anniversary. He worked with members
of the advisory committee to put one together. The long-term strategy is
to use the bicentennial to brand the academy under the rubric "West
Point at 200 Years - Timeless Leadership."
Says Bergen, "It shows the 200-year legacy, but brings out - at a time
when the country needs leadership - that West Point is an important
institution for a very important quality in our society across the
board. You now start making the case that West Pointers are not only big
leaders in war, but in business too. You're talking about their
contributions over the last 200 years."
Most of the bicentennial pieces have been in the works since before
September 11. Ten major books will come out. Magazines that have done,
or are planning special articles and supplements include Forbes,
American Heritage, Newsweek, and National Geographic. Documentaries are
being produced by, among others, PBS (airing January 30) and the
National Geographic Channel (14 half-hour shows on cadet life). The
public affairs office has made its own 22-minute video, narrated by
Walter Cronkite. And Tom Hanks has visited the school to discuss
producing a miniseries to air in the spring.
In addition, ABC inked a $25 million deal with a group of West
Point graduates to promote the bicentennial through television specials
and commercials (the deal is controversial for blurring the lines
between advertising and content). A prime-time special, tentatively
called Young America Celebrates West Point, is scheduled to air in June.
Vignettes called "West Point Minute" will run on Good Morning America
and Nightline (they will be marked as advertising). Other programs will
run on channels at least partially owned by ABC parent Disney, such as
the History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime. ESPN will air a documentary on
West Point sports teams.
Several anniversary events have already occurred, such as a Veterans Day
concert in Washington, DC. Future events include a Carnegie Hall
concert, stamp and coin unveilings, and a Smithsonian exhibit.
"West Point is going to be everywhere at a time when the country is
going to be interested," notes Tate.
Whaley wants to build on the 200th anniversary for the future. "It's
great that we have the bicentennial, but we need to use it as vehicle
for communications for years to come," he says. "Next year at this time,
so many things will have happened, very few people will have not heard
about West Point."
US MILITARY ACADEMY AT WEST POINT
Director of public affairs: Jim Whaley
Public information branch chief:
Community relations branch chief:
Command information branch chief:
Athletic media relations chief:
PA budget: $23,000 ($301,902 for bicentennial)
PR agencies: none