Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Steve Cohen

That challenge from without also describes a battle the Navy can only wage and win from within. It starts with the service explaining its role to itself—as articulated by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s determination to rebuild the Navy’s warfighting ethos. But the tougher battle is for the Navy to sell itself to legislators, opinion-leaders, decision-makers, and most important, the taxpaying public.

How daunting is such a battle? In the summer of 2011, Gallup conducted another of its regular polls, asking the American people which branch of the armed forces is most important and which is the most prestigious. The good news is that the Navy moved up two percentage points in the “most important” category since the last poll was taken back in 2004. The bad news is that it is still dead last—by a significant margin—in both perceived importance and prestige.

Four years ago, this author wrote an article for Proceedings titled “Marketing is Not a Dirty Word.” It argued that the Navy was not using the tools readily at its disposal to tell its story to its key constituencies. So when the new Gallup poll came out, I wanted to see what had changed in the Navy’s communications efforts. What I learned was fairly encouraging: The Navy was doing more and doing it better. But it was also outright depressing because it wasn’t enough to turn the tide.

Both the Chief of Information (CHINFO) and the Navy Recruiting Command (NRC) are marketing smarter, better, and faster. And while they deserve real credit for adapting to a changing environment, their efforts may be in vain. The reason? The Navy may simply have reached its “strategic inflection point.” That phrase comes from former Intel Corporation Chairman Andy Grove, who defined it as that moment in an organization’s history when you realize that everything that made you successful to date will no longer work in the future.

The Navy has problems of its own making. It has done little to make its case—either relative to the other services or on its own in almost every public and political arena. Thus, we are likely to see the smallest Fleet since World War I. And if the new Department of Defense strategy is adopted by our political leaders, it will be increasingly stressed by growing commitments and missions. The key question is whether it will be able to fulfill its responsibilities.

Critics will argue that Fleet size is the wrong measure. They point out that the U.S. Navy is still the largest, most capable Fleet afloat. And while that may be true—for now—the threats against America are real and growing.

Some critics are to be feared more than others. The most disturbing is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In a now-infamous 2009 article in Foreign Affairs , he wrote, “as much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, for example, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined—and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.”

For Navy supporters, those are uncomfortable words coming from any quarter; from the Secretary of Defense, they are positively damning. If the Navy cannot convince the boss of its own importance, then there is a serious problem, to say the least. And what may be more significant is that Secretary Gates made his comments publicly. That he could do so without the Fleet sending up a barrage of emergency flares is alarming indeed. If Secretary Gates was willing to question the value of the Navy in public, one can only imagine how many critics are working behind the scenes to hasten the Navy’s demise.

The good news is that the American people truly admire and respect the U.S. Navy. The bad news is that they have no idea about what the Navy does or its importance in geopolitical affairs.

The Good News

More people in the Navy—starting with CHINFO—seem to be “getting it.” They understand that they have to be preemptive in their strategic communication, not just reactive. They are using far more marketing tools to make the Navy’s case, and are using them more aggressively and effectively. For example:

Social Media : CHINFO’s team takes justifiable pride in its use of social media. As of December 2011, more than 400,000 people “liked” the Navy’s official Facebook page. Plus there are dozens of additional official and unofficial Facebook pages that convey news to and about Navy personnel. Similarly, CHINFO maintains an active Twitter account. Since February 2009 CHINFO has posted more than 20,000 tweets.

Visual Media : The Navy tells its story well visually. Whether it is footage of a Tomahawk lifting from the deck of a destroyer off Libya, a carrier launch off Afghanistan, or helicopters delivering emergency food and medical supplies to Haiti or Japan, the range and power of the Navy’s capabilities are natural for a visual narrative. CHINFO’s staff is more aggressively attuned—and its team newly enlarged—to serve the differing and voracious needs of various media.

Mass Media : The opening of the college basketball season this past Veterans Day took place on board the carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). The game pitted the 2009 NCAA finalists—the University of North Carolina and Michigan State—against each other and featured luminaries such as President Barack Obama and the first lady and Michigan State alumnus Magic Johnson on deck. Ratings and news coverage were enormous in what amounted to a first look at a carrier for many Americans.

Hollywood Help : The Navy, like the other services, maintains a liaison in Hollywood. From Top Gun to NCIS , CHINFO understands that America gets much of its understanding of our national institutions from Hollywood. The current big-budget action feature Battleship is based on the board-and-video game of the same name and has a tagline that even the real Navy could comfortably use: “The Battle for Earth Begins at Sea.”

Fleet Week : Nothing brings the Navy to life for civilians better than the actual men, women, ships, and airplanes of the Navy. CHINFO has devoted considerable effort to expanding and enhancing the Fleet Week experience, not only along the coasts, but in the nation’s heartland. Few who have ever experienced a flyover by the Blue Angels are likely to forget it.

VIP Embarks : An embark can have a profound impact on people’s perception of the Navy. Getting civilians aboard operating ships is an enormously effective way to underscore the Navy’s role, responsibility, and capability. Recently, the Navy has become far more selective about whom they invite aboard. And they have started keeping in touch with people who participated.

The Bad News

The bad news is that all of this good effort doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. Do we hear an outcry from the public to “Save Our Ships?” Are effective, influential champions in Congress buttonholing their colleagues to sustain an appropriate Fleet? And are the media generating stories that question our ability to respond to growing and real international threats? The answers, scarily, are no.

Why aren’t these initiatives working?

Public Affairs Isn’t Strategic Communication : The most common criticism I heard from retired officers—from 0-6s through 0-9s—is that the problem isn’t with CHINFO, but with the most senior Navy leadership. One career Navy man has said:

The problem here is that CHINFO is the mouthpiece. The real failure lies with the line community and its inability to articulate value in words that non-professionals can understand and find compelling. Strategic communication is so much more than public affairs. A huge problem has been the unwillingness of Navy’s leadership to establish a real strategic communication function within the Navy—one that includes public affairs, but is driven by strategic communication beyond the pale of public affairs responsibilities. That’s the part that we just don’t get.

Speaking Softly And Carrying a Small Stick : It is hard to hear the Navy’s message because everyone else is shouting so loudly. It isn’t just competing against the other military services for recruits. It is struggling to be heard over the din of general consumer marketing. The Navy’s total recruiting budget is about $250 million annually. Of that, less than $100 million is actually spent on advertising.

To put those numbers in perspective, Verizon spends more than $3.7 billion a year on domestic marketing, asking whether we can hear them yet. And Geico spends more than $800 million annually on its gecko.

The Message is Muddled : “A Global Force for Good” is the Navy’s latest tagline. It may be what the Navy is, or how it wants to be perceived. But as a message, it is weak and boring. It may be factual, but it is not inspirational to prospective recruits or to a Congress looking to cut funds from somewhere.

“To succeed, recruitment advertising needs an emotional spirit; it needs to strike a deeply responsive chord,” said William Butler, a marketing-communications expert who was chairman and creative director of two of America’s largest advertising agencies. “Granted,” he said, “in a fragile economy, the Navy provides both employment and training. But for generations, the young have joined the Navy ‘to see the world,’ for ‘adventure’—not to learn plumbing.”

When asked about the current Navy advertising campaign, Butler pulled no punches: “It is linear and factual. And dreadfully dull,” he said. “Without any real emotional spirit, it fails to break through the clutter. You can’t get attention for your message by boring people to death.”

Even senior Navy flag officers are not convinced that the “Global Force for Good” moniker is “good enough.” Former Commander 7th Fleet and N3/N5, now-retired Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, once recommended: “A Global Force for Good . . . and for Kicking Ass, If Necessary.”

Unintended Consequences : Strategically, “A Global Force for Good” may be contributing to the Navy’s problems. Too many of the campaign’s images show Navy ships and personnel delivering food, water, and emergency supplies to victims of natural disasters. While a good thing—and important for effective diplomacy—its imagery is sending a compromising message.

Navy ships are built for war, and their crews train diligently for combat. We shouldn’t be sending a message to recruits that the Navy is a sea-borne Peace Corps. And if we want to say to Congress, “Yes we have a dual mission,” then Navy leadership should be prepared to shift budget requests from capital ships to hospital ships.

Licking the Hand that Feeds You : The Navy Recruiting Command is proud of the Global Force for Good campaign, and notes that it came from within the Navy; that this is what active-duty sailors said their role was all about. Fair enough; but it is still mediocre advertising. And nobody seems willing to tell that to the brass directly.

Both CHINFO and the NRC are conducting far more consumer research to determine whether their messages are resonating with target constituencies. That is a smart move. What is surprising is that the feedback they are receiving is overwhelmingly positive. When I showed the Navy’s advertising—along with the Army’s, Air Force’s and Marines’—to a group of 20-year-olds, it was met with yawns. (At least that was an improvement over their reaction to the Navy’s previous campaign, “Accelerate Your Life,” which was greeted with derision. “A good Red Bull slogan” was the consensus.) The Navy’s consumer research seems rife with “framing errors.” The answers they get are skewed by how they ask the questions.

Navy Leadership Stays Under the Radar : Do a Google search for news coverage of talks or congressional testimony by Navy leadership. About the only place such stories appear is Navy Times . Navy leadership is particularly adept at using inside-the-Beltway jargon to tell its story—too often to itself. If Navy leadership’s goal is to keep a low profile, it has succeeded. But low easily morphs into forgotten and then nonexistent.

True Mission Candor : When was the last time Navy leadership said to political inquisitors, “Sorry, sir, no can do.” Instead, the Navy takes pride in saying, “Well that stretches us pretty thin, sir; but aye, aye.” When was the last time there was a “Revolt of the Admirals?” More than 60 years ago.

A Perception of Vulnerability : Ask this question at a dinner party: “What concerns you about the future of the U.S. Navy?” The first answer will almost always be that new Chinese missiles can take out our aircraft carriers. Perhaps that is true. But that is part of the Navy’s perceptual battle: The overwhelming feeling is that we have already lost to the Chinese.

There is an element of self-fulfillment here. Senior officers, starting with recent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, have said repeatedly, “We’re just not very good at this,” meaning marketing, and the disciplines the Navy needs to craft its message and to make it heard. That is an unfamiliar attitude to adopt in a culture as “can-do” as the Navy’s. It is almost as if mediocrity, rather than excellence, is now the accepted norm.

Where to Go From Here

Get a New Ad Agency : “Great and effective advertising is often abandoned for trivial, yet understandable reasons,” Butler explained. “First, clients see their own campaigns every single day, so they tire of them far sooner than their prospects. Second, when a new ad agency wins an account, they need to make the campaign theirs, so the first thing that goes is the old campaign, even if it is spectacularly good.”

The current ad agency has muddled through two mediocre campaigns. And neither holds a candle to “Navy: It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure.” Try to find that caliber of emotional spirit in today’s campaigns. It is time for an agency competition to bring the best possible advertising back to the Navy.

Create a Communication Kitchen Cabinet : Gather the very best professional public relations, advertising, and marketing people who don’t have a vested interest in winning some Navy business but who are willing to provide energy and expertise to helping the Navy communicate its messages.

Stop the Jargon-Talk : When appearing before Congress (or the public) speak clearly and memorably. Strive to get news coverage because what you are saying is important. When testifying before Congress, Army brass speak English—something the Navy should aspire to.

Give CHINFO Some Say Over the Recruiting Command : The loudest message from the Navy comes from its recruiting advertising. If that is muddled, then it is counterproductive for the Navy’s overall strategic communications efforts. CHINFO should retain his reporting responsibility to the CNO. But he should also have some influence over the Recruiting Command. He has expertise; the Navy should use it. Is there a traditional problem in allowing a one-star to have veto power over a three-star’s work? Absolutely. Get over it.

The Defense Industry Needs to Step Up : Defense contractors, typically led by retired military leaders, need to fund an advertising and communications campaign that effectively conveys the importance of an adequately resourced armed force. They should dedicate 20 percent of their existing advertising budgets and 5 percent of their overall marketing budgets to a joint communications effort. Obviously, this would not be a Navy-focused effort, but a defense-wide initiative. A rising tide, as the saying goes, lifts all ships.

Re-engage the Public : The Navy needs to energize opinion-leaders quickly and effectively. Admiral Mullen’s “Conversations with the Country” was a good idea, badly executed. They were long on interest and good fellowship, but had no apparent goals other than to meet and greet already enthusiastic Navy boosters.

The Navy should begin a new communications initiative titled “War Games.” Based on the incredibly influential TV series from 20 years ago called “The Constitution: The Delicate Balance,” it would bring together civilian and military leaders confronting possible global scenarios that have few easy answers.

Developed several years ago by the Naval War College and Columbia University’s Fred Friendly Institute, “War Games” brings opinion leaders and decision-makers together in a forum with a format that has actionable impact. Unfortunately, the Navy abandoned the initiative. Word filtered back to the creators that senior Navy leadership got cold feet. It is a good idea that should be revived.

Take on the Big Issues : It is time for a serious and frank conversation about the role—some would say bullying role—China is playing in the South China Sea. The Navy should lead that conversation. The American people deserve to understand the critical dynamics at play and the role the U.S. Navy is playing in providing a key conventional deterrent to the People’s Republic of China.

It would be delusional for the Navy to convince itself it is not at a strategic inflection point. If it continues to tell its story as it has, it will continue to win inconsequential battles. But it could lose the war for its very existence. As William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” We will have no one else to blame if we allow the U.S. Navy to erode and threaten the peace, safety, and economic security of the United States.

Mr. Cohen, a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1973, is a director emeritus of the U.S. Naval Institute. A longtime publisher and entrepreneur, he is currently finishing law school at New York Law.


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