A Campaign from the Defense Policy Front Lines
(Note: This post originally appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Communication Career Blog in 2014).
By Will Martin
In early 2011, Operation Iraq Freedom became Operation New Dawn, marking the close of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Later that year, President Obama began speaking less about “surge” and more about “drawdown” when addressing the U.S. role in Afghanistan. The message was clear: After more than 10 years, the American people had tired of war, and the White House began responding with a move toward ending those conflicts.
The Problem with Peace
Ironically, the looming peace posed a problem for me as a communication professional. As a public affairs officer at the California Military Department (state headquarters for the 22,000 soldiers and airmen of the California National Guard), I had centered the majority of my messaging on the contributions of National Guardsmen to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In California alone, guardsmen have deployed more than 41,000 times since the 9/11 attacks, more than any other state. At present, more than half the nation’s National Guardsmen are combat veterans. If my goal was to stoke some patriotic fire in the hearts of target audiences and stakeholders, those numbers made for some pretty good kindling.
But as the wars waned in 2012, my public affairs colleagues and I were tasked with keeping the California Guard viable. And, as usual, it came down to politics and money. When our young men and women are knee-deep in combat, arguing for tax dollars is a pretty easy sell. But when the purse strings are tight and the wars are fading from the public mind, it takes more than a patriotic stump speech on Veterans Day to convince Joe Congressman to dip into the public coffers.
Direct Message, Influential Audience
So how did we decide to sell the Guard? How could we ensure that our soldiers and airmen wouldn’t be relegated to a “weekend warrior” status as they had in decades past?
First, we chose to target the policymakers, not the public. Because California is home to a constant barrage of natural and man-made emergencies, the National Guard typically stays near the forefront of residents’ minds. Between massive wildfires, earthquakes and mountaintop rescues, the California National Guard responds to an emergency incident on average once every three days. Just rescuing our neighbors is often the best PR.
But we also needed to win over the men and women who pay our bills. So we chose to target websites and publications they and their staffers read – most notably the “The Hill” and its “Congress Blog” in Washington, D.C. – and we chose a message that resonated with our tough fiscal times: Namely, the National Guard is the nation’s most cost-effective military force. Put in cyber speak, we argued it was time to #GrowTheGuard.
That central message – grow the Guard – was supported by two main talking points: First, a guardsman is cheap, costing taxpayers about one-third that of his active duty counterpart throughout his career; and, second, guardsmen not only fight wars, but are the only U.S. service members that also respond to domestic emergencies and unrest. In other words, the taxpayer gets the most bang for their buck with the National Guard.
The plan and execution have been both simple and organic. By keeping a finger on the pulse of defense-spending debates, we provided timely and quality op-eds to policymaker and defense publications, with a prominent general’s name attached for effect.
Stirring Things Up
While its difficult to precisely measure the campaign, as it has been relatively fluid, the fact that it has raised the ire and gained public responses from active duty leaders is testimony enough that it’s been well-played, effective and, at a minimum, gained us a seat at the table when important conversations occur.
In the end, though, our campaign has been rooted in a timely and direct message with an influential audience in mind. Really, it’s hard to imagine an industry or campaign where those principles wouldn’t apply.