The classified nature and sensitivity of the defense industry makes it doubly challenging to represent
Every sector presents unique challenges for PR and public affairs pros, but defense industry representatives argue that their field may perhaps be a bit more difficult than others.
Where else but in the defense world, for example, might PR representatives trying to make their way into a convention center for a trade show have to navigate past protesters wearing red paint? Such is the case with the biggest biennial defense trade show in the UK, Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), where conference organizers typically have to institute strict security checks to keep out anti-war protesters.
The energy and fur trades attract their share of negative publicity, to name but a couple of controversial industries, but in addition to the sensitive politics associated with manufacturers of weapons - or at least products or services that are used by militaries - companies in the defense industry must also cope with very strict rules about revealing classified information.
Nancy Mace Jackson, a PR and marketing consultant with Atlanta-based Arketi Group, says even a task like providing case studies in news releases to help reporters illustrate how products or services are used in action is difficult. That's partly because it can be a struggle to get permission to mention customers in press releases.
"In my experience, just trying to get a customer quote, which might be very normal for a non-defense industry client, on the defense side is very, very difficult," Jackson says. "Whether it's a legal issue or not, the military is not allowed to endorse one product or another."
In addition, government public affairs professionals, representing, say, the US Coast Guard or the National Security Agency, can find their hands tied when responding to a hot story, such as the recent flap over the proposed deal for Dubai Ports World to take over management of six US ports.
In that situation, just a portion of a classified report on US port security was made available to the public, giving the impression that port security was lacking. Consequently, public affairs professionals at the Coast Guard had to make the difficult case to reporters that the rest of the report, if it could have been revealed, showed that the unclassified bit was essentially taken out of context.
Retired Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, former chief information officer for the US Navy and now national executive director of the Navy League trade association, says such situations crop up frequently for military public affairs representatives. Effective response is aided by establishing an ongoing rapport with the media.
"The critical enabler of the conversation between the public affairs representative and the reporter is trust, confidence, and responsiveness with the press corps, so that when they come to you and you cannot provide them with greater detail, you can say: 'Look, there's more to it than that. I can't get into the details, but you have to believe me when I tell you that's not the correct interpretation,'" Pietropaoli says.
Defense industry representatives say while there are a number of competent agencies for providing outside representation, PR work is often done in-house. For firms looking to increase their portfolio in this area, having a military background is very helpful. Jackson, for instance, is a graduate of The Citadel - but companies also want PR reps who can eat, sleep, and breathe their products and customers.
Dave Vos, CEO and CTO of Warrenton, VA-based Athena Technologies, says his company tried for several years to farm its PR work off to a PR company, but it didn't work out.
"You have to be immersed in the company because what you say can have wide implications," Vos says. "It can not only give you a black eye in the media; it can get you in trouble on the national security level."