Public Sector PR: PR joins the ranks for army manoeuvres - The British Army is turning to PR to help communicate its post-Cold War role and boost recruitment by presenting it as a professional organisation offering good career prospects

The end of the Cold War brought with it problems for the British Army that have still not been fully resolved. Principal among these is how to present itself to the public when its role is no longer as clear-cut as when it was defending the UK’s interests from the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War brought with it problems for the British

Army that have still not been fully resolved. Principal among these is

how to present itself to the public when its role is no longer as

clear-cut as when it was defending the UK’s interests from the threat

posed by the Soviet Union.

The Army is currently seeking advice from a communications specialist or

PR agency (only COI roster agencies are being considered) who will be

asked to plan, deliver and evaluate a corporate communications strategy

that will improve the presentation of the army both internally and


The appointee will report to the Army’s PR director Brigadier Robert

Gordon, who concedes that there is a need to draw on ’private sector


It is vital that the Army gets its corporate image right because in

recent years it has had real difficulties attracting enough recruits of

sufficient calibre. ’There is a major public perception that the armed

forces no longer have a career to offer,’ says Jane’s Defence Weekly

news editor Ian Kemp.

In part, this is a hangover from the Options for Change programme

implemented by the previous government in the aftermath of the Gulf War,

which focused on reducing the size of the Army. And was, of course, a

long-running story in the media.

But recently the pendulum has swung back a little way. Although this

year’s strategic defence review made headlines with the proposed

large-scale reduction in Territorial Army numbers - from 57,000 to about

40,000 - provision was actually made for an increase of over 3,000 in

regular Army posts.

Kemp says the Army may have a ’shortfall’ of as many as 8,000


So recruitment and retention of existing soldiers is clearly a priority


’We carried out some research a year or so ago and to our not great

surprise we found out that the UK public know very little about the

Army,’ says Army deputy PR director Major Nick Sharples. ’What we are

really trying to do is to be a high quality, professional army that is

valued by the nation. I think that we have the first part of that

sentence but I don’t think the nation knows enough about us to value


There are, however, indications that matters are improving. Through

Saatchi and Saatchi, the Army has been running effective TV recruitment

advertisements which have tried to present the army as it is today,

carrying out peace-keeping and humanitarian duties. The campaign has

enjoyed some PR support from both the client’s in-house team and the

advertising agency.

’PR is not something the Army invested in sufficiently in the past but

they have recognised that shortcoming now,’ says Saatchi and Saatchi

group account director Jeremy Pyne.

Among the PR initiatives undertaken by Saatchi andSaatchi was a ’black

Changing of the Guard’ as a means of illustrating that the Army is keen

to attract recruits from ethnic minorities. In the past, the Army has

been criticised by the Equal Opportunities Commission and savaged by the

media for tolerating racism in the ranks.

’They are going to have to change what is a still badly perceived image,

which is that there are elements in the Army of racism and bullying,’

says the Times defence editor Michael Evans.

BBC defence correspondent Mark Laity has sympathy for the Army. He feels

it has to struggle against an ’often hostile media’, with journalists

seizing on any negative stories with zeal. Part of the problem is that

newspapers are investing less in covering military issues. Among the

broadsheets, neither the Guardian, nor the Independent have a full time

defence correspondent. At the same time, the sincere efforts by the Army

to put its own house in order have been largely overlooked. ’The

screw-ups were reported but the clean-up wasn’t,’ he says.

There is concrete evidence of the progress made. The number of new

recruits from ethnic minorities has risen from 0.7 to 1.7 per cent in a

year and Sharples is adamant that this will increase to three and then

four per cent over the next couple of years as the work of a recently

established ethnic minority recruiting team pays off.

There has also been the introduction of video diaries - VNRs sent to

every unit to keep them up to date on what is happening in the Army.

Moreover, a liaison officer is attached to Carlton’s TV drama series

Soldier, Soldier to ensure that it offers a broadly realistic portrayal

of Army life.

If the Army does decide to go with an agency rather than bringing talent

from the commercial sector in-house, it will not be entering completely

uncharted territory. Consolidated Communications is already working for

the Territorial Army, with a brief to stress that although it is being

reduced in size it remains important.

Bringing in private sector expertise is not without precedent in other

countries. France recently appointed Jean-Francois Bureau as the first

ever civilian to head the information and PR service at its defence


But, back in the UK, there are indications that the Army’s marketing

communications may be more comprehensively overhauled in several years

time. Colonel Rory Clayton, who as head of plans in army recruitment is

responsible for attracting new recruits, believes it is almost

inevitable that his department and the PR team, presently in different

parts of the country, will be brought together.

The strategic defence review looks likely to be followed by a strategic

marketing communications review.

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