CORPORATE CASE STUDY: US Coast Guard advances its mission by opening up

Security concerns continue to place the US Coast Guard firmly under the media spotlight. So the smallest branch of the armed services keeps a steady and sure approach to public affairs.

Security concerns continue to place the US Coast Guard firmly under the media spotlight. So the smallest branch of the armed services keeps a steady and sure approach to public affairs.

Last week, the US Coast Guard (USCG) made sure that the media had a front-row seat as Hurricane Isabel spun into the coast of North Carolina, producing rain that flooded streets, wind that knocked out power and uprooted trees, and waves that crashed into the shore and whatever else stood in their path. And the USCG plays the same role with the media - whether it's a tropical storm slamming into the coast, a capsized fishing vessel that requires a search-and-rescue mission, or a boat loaded with cocaine speeding toward American waters. The press is almost always allowed to see first-hand how it all happens, the idea being that the more the public understands about its role, the better a job the Coast Guard will be equipped to do. But it isn't easy. The USCG is under the Department of Homeland Security, making the move from the Department of Transportation on March 1 of this year. As a result, the USCG is a multimission agency working under a single-focused department. "We have to strike the right balance between communicating the Homeland Security message and what we're doing in that area, and communicating search-and-rescue, fisheries enforcement, law enforcement, drug enforcement, pollution response - all the many missions we're mandated by Congress to do," explains Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, chief of media relations for the USCG. All hands on deck The USCG is also the smallest branch of the armed services, with 38,000 active members, so it requires a unique and versatile public affairs setup. Not only is public affairs considered a secondary career specialty (there are only about 85 full-time public affairs personnel spread across the country, whereas the US Navy, for instance, has 26 full-time public affairs staffers in Norfolk, VA alone), but everyone from a serviceman straight out of boot camp to a district commander knows and works under the mantra, "If you own it, you can talk about it." The USCG itself is broken up into nine geographical districts, with several commands under each of those districts. "Every command has a collateral-duty public affairs officer, and we have hundreds of commands," says Carter, adding that at every command, "someone is assigned to [public affairs] in addition to their regular duties. Hundreds do it on a part-time basis." So in essence, a serviceman could perform a search-and-rescue mission in the morning, take on public affairs duties in the afternoon, and then head back out for another search-and-rescue. When Carter was stationed in Louisville, KY, he had 13 other collateral duties in addition to public affairs. "There are a lot of things that are done as collateral duty that you might find would have a full-time individual assigned to that function in the other services," he says. Carter adds that when he was performing public affairs as a collateral duty, he considered it a success to get in front of the camera and tell the USCG's story. "Now I realize that the organization is better served and the public is better served when I get subject-matter experts in front of the camera," notes Carter. "If I end up having to do the interview, it's not a success. It's a failure." This can mean getting a reporter on a boat, talking to the coxswain about what he's doing to protect the country's ports, or interviewing the rescue swimmer who jumped in the water from a helicopter. "Right after September 11, we did a series of spots on port security," says Dennis Powell, a producer for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. "We went out with them, boarding a container ship, and they did their whole search. They understand what my needs are in terms of TV and telling a story." Chain of command Of course, allowing anyone in a 38,000-member organization to talk to the media is bound to make the public affairs people - anyone high up in the ranks, really - a bit nervous. "It places an added burden on me as the program coordinator to make sure that our people are trained properly," says Carter's boss, Cmdr. John Philbin, chief of public affairs. "It's very important that we teach everyone who comes into the organization that when they are approached by media they understand what they can talk about and what they should stay away from. We have a maximum-disclosure, minimum-delay policy that has served us well. It's our job to keep the American taxpayer advised as to how their tax dollars are spent, so we always have a very open culture about our communications process. " In other words, there's no point in a reporter asking a helicopter pilot or dry-dock serviceman about the war in Iraq. He or she won't discuss what they aren't qualified to talk about. But that doesn't mean the USCG public affairs staff leaves everyone empty-handed when it comes to dealing with issues they are able to discuss, and it is well aware of situations in which they deal with the media. "I'm also responsible for creating and publishing public affairs guidance for specific issues, which gives guidelines about what we will and won't talk about - the key messages we want to communicate," says Carter. "It's not my job to put words in their mouths, but to give them some sort of framework that they can use to frame the discussion on any particular issue. Everybody in the USCG has a good understanding of what they need to be mindful of when they're engaging the media." And anyone talking to the media informs his or her commander and/or public affairs officer, who then relays that information up the chain of the public affairs command. "We work under a no-surprises theme," Carter says. "We don't want the bosses to be surprised, so we keep that information flowing up." "We certainly have a much greater responsibility than we did under the DoT to making sure that Secretary Ridge and his staff are advised as early as possible about emerging events," adds Philbin. "He has an enormous amount of responsibility, and it's my job to make sure that his people know what's going on." Eye on the horizon The challenge ahead, then, is to get everyone in the USCG thinking like public affairs practitioners. "When I was the Pacific-area public affairs officer, my goal was to make everything relevant to the operators so that the guy driving the ship who's getting to do a search-and-rescue or chasing a fast-moving boat loaded with cocaine, that individual is going to think, 'Not only do I have to do this to prosecute the mission, I have to do this to get the video or the stills, or whatever it takes to tell this story beyond my command, so that when we get to port, we can get the video in the hands of the media, and they can be aware of what we're doing out here.'" Over time, Carter found that operators on the ground were getting in the habit of asking him for help in putting their stories out to the media. "That, to me, was a measure of success," Carter says. "That was exactly what I wanted them to do. I would tell them that you don't fight drug runners without having a plan, you don't fight terrorists without having a plan, and you shouldn't engage the media without having a plan. You can save all the babies from sinking ships that you want, but if you don't have video or photographs, or someone willing to talk about it, no one's ever going to know about it." Philbin adds, "We have a good sense of where [a story] will play in the national landscape of the news window," and Powell agrees. Long before Isabel came ashore, the USCG was in touch with him, making arrangements for ABC to cover the story from land, sea, or air. "They call us and tell us, 'This is taking place, you might wanna be there,'" Powell says. "They're just really good pitchers of stories." ----- PR Contacts Chief, office of public affairs Cmdr. Pat Philbin Chief, media relations branch Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter Chief, community relations branch Mr. Lynford Morton Motion picture and television liaison office (Los Angeles) Cmdr. Jeff Loftus Public affairs officer, Coast Guard Atlantic Area (Portsmouth, VA) Lt. Buddy Dye Public affairs officer, Coast Guard Pacific Area (Alameda, CA) Lt. Glynn Smith Annual budget $385,745

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