A call to arms

The latest recruitment effort by the US Army implements a variety of new tactics to engage future soldiers.

The latest recruitment effort by the US Army implements a variety of new tactics to engage future soldiers.

Behind enemy lines in the fictional country of Sahrani the mission is clear: eliminate a general occupying a nearby hotel. Through his scope, the sniper sees the building and guards posted on its roof. He moves into a better position, observes the general walk onto the balcony, and fires. The target is down, but now enemy foot patrols and a reconnaissance helicopter are launched in search of the sniper, who flees.

Does he survive? "Stabiz," the YouTube contributor who posted this episode he created from America's Army, the US Army's popular video game/recruiting tool, doesn't show how the mission ends. But judging from the many other America's Army clips posted on the video-sharing Web site, many people are playing similar virtual adventures of their own. Such game playing, according to the Army, can even get young adults interested in enlisting.

Of course, a cool game won't be enough to get most prospective enlistees into Army recruiting offices. Thus the Army is also running millions of dollars in TV ads, sponsoring NASCAR drivers and rodeo riders, attending job fairs and visiting schools, and hosting a lot more than just a video game on its www.goarmy.com Web site.

Army Strong, as the Army's latest recruiting campaign is called - the seventh in the past 33 years - has a definite emphasis on electronic communications, from opportunities to chat live on the Web site with soldiers about any and every topic, to interactive sections showing what boot camp is like, the different specialties the Army trains people for, and more. Podcast subjects not only include discussion from soldiers about their individual experiences, but also the latest results for the Army's NASCAR team and other fun things.

Targeting today's youth

The Army's recent efforts simply reflect the mindset of youth today, as Army public affairs specialist Paul Boyce noted to PRWeek when the Army Strong campaign first launched in November.

"Young people today tell us that information is readily available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, where they want it, when they want it," he said then - and that holds true today.

The campaign, led by McCann-Erickson under a $200 million annual contract signed two years ago, which includes a host of sister Interpublic Group agencies, including Weber Shandwick, involves extensive advertising, specialized outreach to Hispanic and African-American communities, sponsorship of events at NASCAR races and rodeos, and development and management of the Web site, where the "individual" experience of Army soldiers is emphasized.

And while some might expect dwindling public support to affect recruiting levels, six months after the launch of Army Strong, Boyce says it hasn't for the most part. He adds that enlistees make their decision based on very personal reasons that can involve everything from getting money for college, to learning a trade like medicine or electrical engineering, to aiding a cause that, even if unpopular with some, is strongly supported by future fellow service members who will become like family someday for the recruit.

The active Army claims it has met its recruiting goal for the 23rd consecutive month, and including active, reserve, and National Guard forces, the Army has recruited or re-enlisted 165,000 soldiers so far this year.

Negative perceptions about the war in Iraq are "obviously a factor," Boyce says, "but no more so than the economy or the cycle of the year we're in. For instance, normally, summer is our business time of year, and January through March is the slow period."

Certainly, appealing to families and other older adults whom recruits look to for advice is part of the sell, notes Eric Pehle, SVP at WS. That appeal can be seen in the storylines presented in ads - such as a father and mother discussing the growing maturity of their son since his enlistment - and on the Web site, where there is a special section for parents.

Another aspect of outreach is multicultural, with WS affiliates Axis Agency focusing on Hispanic outreach and Carol H. Williams targeting African Americans. The outreach includes such tactics as hosting events that tour major US cities to highlight Hispanic recipients of Congressional Medals of Honor; participating in Hispanic- or African-American-focused trade association conventions or job fairs; awarding research contracts to historically black colleges and universities; and running Spanish-language ads on Univision and Telemundo.

Local outreach

Earned media to reach out to all types of potential recruits is also important, of course, particularly in local markets. When a prospective enlistee reading his or her hometown newspaper or watching the news sees someone a few years older who is in the Army, that carries great weight.

"A lot of what we do focuses on the local communities, on telling stories back in their hometowns saying, 'Here's somebody who's made a difference.'" Pehle says. "At the end of the day, most soldiers go back to those communities when they get out of the ser- vice and make a difference in those [areas]."

Another factor surely aiding recruitment and the Army's overall image, Hoover Institution senior fellow Thomas Henriksen notes, is the respect widely shown for service members, whether people feel the war in Iraq is good or support the Bush administration.

"That's different from the Vietnam War, where soldiers were really spat upon when they came back," Henriksen says. "This time, even opponents of the war don't do that. Soldiers are held in very high esteem."

Army Attractions

Virtual Army Experience: 10,000-square-foot traveling interactive exhibit offering a "virtual test drive of soldiering," a briefing on typical soldiers' experiences, and a virtual combat operation

Army Bull Riding and Rodeo: Sponsorship of professional bull riders and informational events held at rodeos

US Army All-American Bowl: Annual football game features the top high-school players in the US

Army Marksmanship Unit: Specializes in small arms; members compete in national and international events, including the Olympics, and run shooting clinics

Golden Knights: The 44-year-old parachute group holds exhibitions and competes in tournaments around the world, demonstrating a variety of aerobatics

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