Commanding communications

Being transparent and embracing social media has helped the Navy shine a light on the work it does every day in communities across the country.

Being transparent and embracing social media has helped the Navy shine a light on the work it does every day in communities across the country.

“Is there a short fuse here?” asks Chris Madden, director, Navy media content services, as Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, director, Navy news desk, approaches him with a look of concern on his face.

“Yes,” Servello responds before launching into a litany of facts about a US Navy helicopter that crashed in the Gulf nation of Oman with five crew members on board. 

Within 30 minutes, archived photos of an MH-53E Sea Dragon, the type of craft that went down, are gathered and information on the crash is collected and disseminated, first through the military unit's social media channels, followed by a press release. 

Getting information out first through the Navy's digital platforms, which include its website, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube, is a relatively new course of action for the more than two-century-old organization. It's only within the last three years under the tenure of Rear Adm. Dennis Moynihan, the US Navy's chief of information, that the organization has aggressively embraced the tools.

Change of pace
When he took the post, social media use was minimal at best, with the US Navy not even having a Facebook page. Today it reaches about 5 million people each month through digital channels.

This doesn't take into account the reach of 600 command posts around the world, which have their own digital media accounts.

While Moynihan advocated that higher-ups embrace the tools, he credits their ultimate acceptance to changing times. “When you're in a bureaucracy, there is a tendency to wait and gather as many facts as you can and put a nice bow on the entire story, but when you're dealing with the environment we're in today you
can't wait,” he says. Twitter became a go-to-first outreach tool during a crisis or major breaking news events, following the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

The Navy saw a positive reception from the public via regular updates on efforts in the region. “This is where the conversation we want to be a part of and respond to is happening, so we needed to be there,” says Servello.

Getting information out quickly, even the most basic information, helps build credibility, he adds. This is especially true in contentious situations such as an incident that happened this summer in which one person died and three others were injured when a US Navy ship fired at an approaching fishing boat off the United Arab Emirates. While stories conflicted as to how the shooting played out, being as transparent as possible and showing a willingness to engage with media in the area generated positive perceptions of the Navy.

“It may take days or weeks to get the whole story, but we're engaging now and that's very important to our reputation,” explains Servello. 

Human outreach
For the past three years, consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton has had a full-time employee sitting among the Navy's office of emerging media at the Pentagon to help plan, monitor, and grade digital outreach efforts. Having a contractor in the office means the agency can “direct our course” and “see opportunities and directions we should take,” says Lt. Shawn Eklund, director, emerging media.

While digital has proven effective for the Navy, old-fashioned media outreach via phone is still an important part of promotional efforts.

Machinist's mate 3rd Class Maria Lane helps a young hospital patient during Boston Navy Week 2012.

“There's always going to be a need for human contact. Personal relationships are very important and when we call in, [the media] are in tune to who we are and trust us,” says Madden.

The Navy also utilizes in-person and grassroots techniques when reaching out to general consumers. Key initiatives in this vein are the Navy Weeks held by the military unit. The goal of these events is to educate Americans on the importance of the Navy in cities that don't see the military unit at work on a regular basis. Navy Weeks are organized around an anchor event or large community occasion such as a state fair or public holiday celebration.

Navy admiral or flag officers speak to civic and educational organizations, colleges, and nonprofit groups and do media interviews during these visits. Key talking points include maritime strategy, the purpose of Naval forces, and effectively using the Navy's budget.

“There is a growing gap of familiarity with the military in general,” says Capt. Rob Newell, director, community outreach. “With outreach programs we try to fill that space and increase understanding.”

One of Moynihan's most cherished accomplishments as he prepared to exit the US Navy this past August was helping launch the Navy 50/50 program, a companion initiative to Navy Week where top Navy uniformed and civilian leaders revisit previous sites of the outreach program. “This reminds them their Navy is here and doing good things,” says Moynihan.

Raising awareness
As part of this program, 50 cities are visited each year for three days at a time of high-level engagement with corporate executives, civic leaders, government officials, and the media. Ultimately, the program will expand the Navy's outreach efforts nearly threefold in terms of the number of cities visited each year.

In addition to raising awareness, the programs are vital for recruitment for the all-volunteer military unit. Recruiting data shows about 324,000 active servicemen in the Navy and annual recruitment goals are usually met or exceeded. However, the total number of servicemen is down from about 592,000 active
officers in 1989.

The Navy plans to launch an outreach effort later this year to bolster the ethnic minority roster for its SEAL unit. It is evaluating communications firms to assist with the effort, following an RFP process.

The winning firm will conduct awareness events in metropolitan areas considered centers of diversity for black, Hispanic, Arab-American, and Asian and Pacific-Islander communities. The campaigns will target consumers aged 16 to 24, as well as influencers such as athletic directors, religious clergy, and family members.
Minorities represent fewer than 20% of enlisted SEALs and black Americans represent fewer than 2% of SEAL officers, according to reports from the US Naval Special Warfare Command.

“It remains a priority for both our secretary and chief of naval operations to make sure we have a force that reflects the nation we serve,” says Moynihan. “We are smart enough to know that we need someone to help us.”

Rear Adm. John Kirby, who replaced Moynihan in August, says he is looking “forward to building on the strong foundation that has been laid and continuing the conversation with the American people.”

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