ANALYSIS: The military's new PR mission - Recruitment and retention are now top priorities within the military. Claire Murphy reports on how this is changing the way the US military practices public relations

Despite Hollywood's best efforts at casting leading actors in patriotic military roles, the idea of joining the armed forces has become less and less attractive in recent years. The economy skyrocketed, Silicon Valley workers became the new American heroes, and the appeal of serving in the armed forces faded.

Despite Hollywood's best efforts at casting leading actors in patriotic military roles, the idea of joining the armed forces has become less and less attractive in recent years. The economy skyrocketed, Silicon Valley workers became the new American heroes, and the appeal of serving in the armed forces faded.

Despite Hollywood's best efforts at casting leading actors in patriotic military roles, the idea of joining the armed forces has become less and less attractive in recent years. The economy skyrocketed, Silicon Valley workers became the new American heroes, and the appeal of serving in the armed forces faded.

One public affairs officer admitted to PRWeek he was considering leaving the forces for the civilian PR world. 'This will be my last military posting. I'm off to make some real money.'

To address the situation, President Bush pledged to improve military pay and benefits in early February. During a tour of the Fort Stewart Army base in Savannah, GA, he cited low pay and benefits as the chief culprits of disaffection, adding, 'Frustration is up; morale in some places is difficult to sustain; recruitment is hurt.'

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joined the campaign, emphasizing the need for troops to feel looked after. 'The focus has to be on quality of life,' he told Fox News Sunday. 'Without men and women to man the forces, we don't have a national defense, so that has to be the first focus.'

Fault can partially be placed with the military itself: when troop numbers were cut in 1990, the PR focus moved away from recruitment and retention.

The impact has been lingering: all of the forces (except the Marines) missed recruitment targets in the final years of the last century (see graph).

Seeing the trend, senior military officials have made recruitment and retention their top goal.

After missing recruitment targets in 1998 and 1999, the Army took a long, hard look at its marketing and PR efforts, and, just one month into 2000, announced sweeping changes, including the creation of a marketing strategy group.

People with corporate marketing expertise were drafted in to staff the group, advising Army leadership and working with existing military and civilian managers involved in recruitment. The Army also vowed to make greater use of techniques adopted in the private sector.

Since the Army suffered most in the recruitment battle of the late '90s, its response had to be seen as fast and effective. Its action has been mirrored across the rest of the military.

All of the forces have accelerated the process of professionalizing their marketing and PR skills, sprucing up both what is said externally about each branch of the forces, and minding how messages are channeled to soldiers, sailors, pilots and the civilians who work alongside them.

This coincided with other events that have awakened the military's top brass to the significance of public voice, believes Ed Lansdale, senior VP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard New York and a former Air Force public affairs officer. 'There are a variety of factors that have created a growing awareness within the military that more integrated communications are needed. The new focus on recruitment and retention is one. The further we get away from the draft and the Cold War, the tougher time they are having marketing to would-be recruits.

'But as the US military has taken on different types of operations throughout the world, principally peace-keeping missions like Kosovo, all the forces have found themselves in a brighter media spotlight, having to explain their role. So the public affairs function has risen in significance.'

Message mobilizing

At a strategic level, this has led to a more rigorous approach to planning how the forces are seen. The Air Force, for example, produced its first Strategic Communications Plan in 2000, documenting its advertising and PR aims for the year (recruitment and retention being at the top of the list).

The document gives public affairs officers (PR is universally known as public affairs in the military) more flexibility and independence in planning and executing campaigns. As long as activities jibe with aims laid out in the plan, PA officers can go ahead - with fewer levels of sign-off than would have been necessary in the past.

Externally, this new thinking has resulted in new branding campaigns across the armed forces. The Army worked closely with ad agency Leo Burnett on a comprehensive integrated campaign to push its new slogan following its January 2000 marketing soul-search. 'Army of One' was unveiled in January 2001 with its aim of emphasizing teamwork as well as the value of individual effort. The Air Force went through a similar relaunch last year, swapping 'Aim High' for 'No one comes close.'

'If you see someone with a short haircut looking quite military, we don't want (you) to jump to the conclusion that it's some insane warmonger, or that they drink too much,' says Air Force public affairs officer Capt. Jim Fuchs. 'These are reputations that have been out there over the years. We want (the public) to realize that these are normal people who grew up next door to you and made this choice rather than going to work for, say, AT&T.'

The external campaigns are crucial, but the military, like other organizations, is discovering the value of concerted internal campaigns to keep people informed, motivated and, ultimately, enlisted.

The idea was drilled home when Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Schinseki stood to address the public affairs symposium last month. He had a clear message for the 400 Army PA people in the audience: improve internal communications.

The lesson is being learned across the forces. Capt. Jim Kudla, the commanding officer of the Naval Media Center, says his unit is working to improve communications with sailors. The Direct to Sailor program is a TV service beamed via satellite to ships, allowing the Navy to broadcast footage immediately to troops, rather than waiting for tapes to arrive at ports of call. The media center can also broadcast relevant command information in place of the commercials that the public sees. For the past year, there has also been a daily two-minute feature on Navy news.

The January issue of the Navy's monthly magazine contains information on sailors' rights and benefits, and is available on CD Rom.

'We want to keep people properly informed about new initiatives by the leadership to help sailors decide to stay in the Navy,' Kudla says. 'We have to remind them and their families of the benefits, and keep reinforcing that message.'

Technology has facilitated improvements to the way public affairs works in the military.

Commander Greg Smith, who runs the Navy's news desk as director of media operations, used CD-Roms when he released the report of the bombing of the USS Cole to the media. 'There are a limited number of folks that can get to the Pentagon for the briefing, so we sent out 17,000 releases on CD-Rom. This allowed reporters to get as much, or as little, information as they needed, and a hotlink to our Web site allowed access to background. It provided lots of information in an easy format and was a lot cheaper than photocopying paper releases.'

Internet technology has also allowed Army public affairs officer Paul Boyce to measure the effectiveness of 'Webosodes' - short video footage of recruits going through basic training shown on www.go.Army.com.

'We are definitely more focused on producing a consistent message, and new technology has increased our ability to measure the effectiveness of what we are doing,' says Boyce.

When the Army unveiled its new campaign slogan in January, it sent out e-mail letters to bases to coincide with the story breaking in the media.

Other initiatives include the Army's own e-mail system - Army Knowledge Online - which was set up last October. It allows the increasing number of soldiers with personal computers to register for an e-mail account, which also feeds general Army news to them. So far, 100,000 have signed up for the service.

But for all its benefits, Internet technology has added pressure to military PA officers. Smith reports that his team is sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information they must monitor.

'I think one of the biggest changes we've seen in public affairs is this emphasis on knowledge management,' he explains. 'We need so many people to keep a tab on everything, because there is so much being written on the Internet about the Navy.'

In the public affairs office of the chief of the Navy's personnel, Cmdr. Betsy Bird agrees that the Internet creates its own challenges. 'The speed of communications is great, but it means we have a constant battle to keep up with everything out there.'

The private sector responded to the Internet revolution by employing additional staff, but the forces have not enjoyed the same luxury. Bird reports that budgetary pressures have kept Navy PA staff numbers the same since the 1980s (approximately 200).

Dragging a little behind the civilian PR world, the military recently realized exactly what the Internet can offer PA people. Fuchs discovered bulletin boards and chatrooms while interning with Hill & Knowlton last year. 'I had been ill-equipped for the dot-com stuff. But at H&K, I was working on dot-com accounts, so I put in the research and realized what was out there.'

By checking out the boards, Fuchs could find out what people were saying about the forces. 'Military people often use those boards to tell what's on their mind, and reporters look at that to find stories. ... That's a great resource we've haven't tapped into too much.'

Infiltrate private sector PR

After returning to the Air Force, Fuchs gave a presentation on monitoring chatrooms and bulletin boards to his PA colleagues. 'It makes so much sense, if you are working in public affairs on a base, to check out things like this. The military can be quite an insular community, but this helps to open you up to what's out there.'

Breaking through the insularity is a subject that Fuchs is particularly keen on, having recently completed his 10-month stint with H&K. Fuchs is one of just a few people across the four forces who have learned new ideas and techniques from working at PR agencies as part of the Education With Industry program.

Having public affairs people learn from the practices of the civilian world has taken on new significance in recent years. The sudden need for a more focused approach to recruitment means the forces are eager to learn. Senior agency executives gave talks on creativity, research techniques and the Internet at last month's Army public affairs symposium, which attracted 400 people - some 25% more than it drew in previous years.

Although limited in number, agency internships have proved an excellent training ground for widening the perspective of military PA people. The Air Force's program with H&K was started 33 years ago and is one of the oldest. It sends one PA person to the agency each year, as does the Navy. The Army has a wider scheme, with six people going each year to Ketchum, Edelman and Fleishman-Hillard. It also sends a public affairs officer to intern with Turner Broadcasting.

The Army was able to extend its partnership with Fleishman-Hillard two years ago, sending a PA officer into the agency's New York office (the Washington, DC, and Atlanta offices have taken part for years).

Lt. Col. Marian Austin runs the Army's Education with Industry program. 'We have a lot of regulation in the Army. Going into an agency environment teaches our people a more creative way of thinking. They also tend to come back with a more strategic approach to planning campaigns, and they have a better idea of research techniques available to them.'

She also believes the program helps military PA officers in their relationships with senior commanding officers - the very people who need to be aware of the value of public affairs. 'The PR industry is very good at presenting itself to clients. That's a good mentality for us to take away.'

Last year's Fleishman New York intern, Maj. Mike Donnelly, agrees that his time outside the Army brought him new perspective. 'I was amazed by the speed at which things happen. In the Army, there's such dependence on paperwork; at Fleishman there was virtually none. We got things done via e-mail or by just picking up the phone. There was so much less emphasis on hierarchy.

'I've found it's helped me get things done much quicker since I've been back. I'm much more likely to just call up a three-star general and say, 'Look, could you help me with this?' I work quicker now, but I know I have a bad habit of not calling people 'sir.''

Fuchs' time at H&K taught him the value of planning. 'In the military, we so often are dealing with crises that the public affairs attitude is often to just jump straight in and fix a problem,' he explains. 'But in the agency world, you're dealing with a client's money, so you have to stop and think, research your options. That kind of approach has been very valuable to me.'

On a more practical level, Fuchs' stint in agency land introduced him to Profnet. 'We didn't know about it. As soon as I got back I put the Air Force on it. It makes so much sense, with all the expertise here. It's such a great chance to establish credibility with the media.'

Fuchs also believes he now has a more sophisticated view of media targeting. 'Most military public affairs officers have their national and local media sheets. But Hill & Knowlton taught me the value of looking at less obvious media. Smaller publications, for example, like newsletters, trade magazines, academic journals, can be useful to get your message out. It's better to think about the people that most need to hear. This is more valuable than the broad approach.'

Putting his lessons into practice, Fuchs is negotiating to bring participants in MTV's Road Rules program onto a survival course at New Jersey's McGuire Air Force base.

'The overall aim is to show the public, particularly potential recruits, that we are part of American society,' he adds. 'We aren't some separate entity in the shadows. We are the active enforcers of your national policy.'



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