The majority of the U.S. public is unaware of the Coast Guard beyond its response to national-level incidents such as hurricanes and oil spills. The service blames the lack of national awareness on its small size, but ignores the real problem: The Coast Guard does not care about its public affairs program. Rather than embracing the program as a mission enabler, the service has allowed it to become depleted from decades of neglect. The program’s lack of focus, lack of leadership, and lack of resources hinder the Coast Guard’s ability to connect with the audiences necessary to move the service forward.
Correctly leveraged, the public affairs program is an operational force multiplier, yet many fail to see its value beyond photographing ceremonies and holiday parties. The national attention received through public affairs coverage in the wake of disaster responses, however, has produced results that are impossible to ignore.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard received an unprecedented $1.04 billion acquisition budget in fiscal year 2006, an increase of nearly $300 million over the previous year.1 Then, as the service faded from prominence, its funding stagnated. Most notably, in 2017 the Coast Guard faced a $1.3 billion cut to an already bare-bones budget.2 Months later, however, in the wake of the Coast Guard’s response to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, the service received its largest budget in history, preparing the way for the acquisition of new assets.3 The Coast Guard’s response to the 2017 events was historic, but it was the service’s national prominence following a burst in media coverage that ensured the service was not overlooked during funding battles.
While the Coast Guard understands the importance of media coverage during national-level events, it must be better positioned to carry its momentum forward as part of an ongoing, sustained campaign. If the Coast Guard wants to strengthen the service, it must overhaul the public affairs program to ensure ongoing national coverage of its daily operations rather than waiting for a windfall from the next natural disaster.
Lack of Focus
Prior to 2014, the public affairs program had six objectives: create awareness of the service, assist recruiting and retention efforts, archive historical material, reduce boating accidents through public education, target decision makers to ensure fiscal support, and deter illegal activities through public education.4 These were measurable objectives, easy to understand and implement, and served Coast Guard operations.
In 2014, however, these objectives were replaced with a mission “to plan, coordinate, and implement communication strategies designed to build understanding, credibility, trust, and mutually beneficial relationships with the publics who the Coast Guard serves.”5 This describes what a public affairs professional does, but it left the program without a cohesive and consistent purpose. Compounding the lack of focus is one of the Coast Guard’s most persistent problems—the lack of a defined brand.
Complete this sentence: “The few, the proud, the . . .” If you said Marines, that was no accident. Close your eyes and picture a Marine. Did you envision a physically fit person with impeccable grooming who could possibly kill you with a pencil? If you are silently nodding your head yes, that, too, was by design. The Marine Corps’ strategic communication plan directing both its public affairs and recruiting efforts promotes a clearly defined brand image: elite warrior.6 Every time the Marines engage the public they know what image to project and have consistent messaging to employ.
Now, close your eyes and picture a Coast Guardsman. Who do you see? A rescue swimmer plucking someone from the raging sea? An icebreaker cutting a path to Antarctica? A tender driving piles on an inland river? A marine inspector boarding a cargo ship? Is it a Coast Guard auxiliarist educating recreational boaters? Is it a boarding team member assisting migrants off an overcrowded vessel? Or is it a sniper shooting out the engines of a drug-smuggling speed boat?
The daily operations of the Coast Guard are important, diverse and interesting; however, it is a challenge to define one brand image for the service. This complicates how the service gains public interest or even breaks squelch on the average American’s social media feed. Creating that brand image is the role and responsibility of a public affairs program, and failure to communicate that brand is the result of the program lacking vision, guidance, personnel, and expertise.
For years, the service has grappled with its brand image. In 2001, Captain D. A. Goward noted, until the brand is defined, “the Coast Guard will continue to have difficulty surviving year to year and will be unable to prosper and succeed. It will continue to suffer the slow death of a thousand cuts at the hands of federal budget bureaucrats in the Department of Transportation, Office of Management and Budget, General Accounting Office, and on congressional staffs, while hoping for annual resurrection from the few members of Congress who occasionally take an interest in it.”7 The Coast Guard’s shift to the Department of Homeland Security has not altered this reality. The service struggles to prove its relevance in a department fixated on southwest border security, and again its budget was under attack as departmental leadership contemplated reallocating $77 million from the 2018 budget to fund Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations.8
Goward’s solution was innovative—instead of branding the Coast Guard as one identity, the service should embrace its diversity and view itself as a parent company to complementary brands. He explains, “Consumers don’t go to the store to buy Procter and Gamble—they go to purchase Dial soap or Crest toothpaste. Members of Congress don’t want to fund ‘Coast Guard,’ they want to fund lifesaving and narcotics interdiction.”9
This solution could work if 11 strategic teams were developed, each devoted to defining and promoting one of the Coast Guard’s missions. All 11 missions have millions of constituents interested in the specific services the Coast Guard provides. For example, northern constituents care more about domestic icebreaking capabilities compared to constituents in warmer climates. Realistically, the Coast Guard cannot use the same communications playbook for each of these constituent groups. Strategic teams translating national intent to regional audiences through the district external affairs offices would ensure each mission receives ongoing attention to daily operations, akin to the U.S. Navy’s type commander construct.
This dedicated effort would be a far cry from today’s whack-a-mole operations in which the service focuses its efforts on the mission currently most in need of acquisition funding. Instead of having missions fighting for pieces of the funding pie, the Coast Guard could grow support for funding all constituent interests concurrently. In addition, this construct takes advantage of the current information environment, in which audiences select news sources that resonate with their personal interests rather than relying on traditional media outlets. It would not matter which brand image is imagined when asked to envision a Coast Guardsman; that brand image would have been a result of calculated microtargeting based on a person’s region and interests.
Lack of Leadership
There is a reason this branding concept has not been adopted—the public affairs program has failed to grow leaders from within and is a revolving door of inexperienced practitioners. A 1977 study found “a continuity problem exists in public affairs: An officer serving as PAO [public affairs officer] will not normally serve another assignment in public affairs unless it be at CG Headquarters in Washington, D.C.”10 The conclusions of this 41-year-old study hold true today. While the Coast Guard is in the process of implementing an officer specialty management system to ensure retention of members with critical skills, there still is no defined public affairs career path to grow future leaders in that program.
As a result, the Coast Guard fails to leverage officers selected for public affairs graduate school and build on their tactical success at the regional level by later employing them in strategic leadership positions. This is in stark contrast to every other Department of Defense component where public affairs is considered a technical specialty. For example, the Navy’s current Chief of Information has nine previous public affairs assignments. The experience disparity for the Coast Guard is substantial; this is the second public affairs–related tour for its current Chief of Public Affairs. His predecessor served his first public affairs tour in this leadership position. This lack of experience is a service-wide failure. The Coast Guard would not place a novice in charge of any operational program but consistently accepts this scenario for its communications program.
Moreover, the public affairs graduate program fails to produce and retain sufficient numbers of promotable officers to fill senior leadership positions. The graduate program does not have enough billets to fill all nine of the district public affairs positions with qualified personnel, let alone any of the positions on area and headquarter public affairs staffs.
The lack of experienced leaders is no surprise. The Coast Guard does not fund the required number of officers at the entry level into the program and fails to define a public affairs career path to continue to grow that expertise. Most of these graduate school attendees return to their primary operational specialty to ensure their promotability or leave the service to leverage this lucrative skillset in the private sector. The service’s communication capabilities suffer as a result of this senior leadership gap, and it also has a negative impact on the public affairs enlisted workforce.
Lack of Resources
The Coast Guard’s public affairs enlisted workforce consists of only 74 members (about 0.2 percent of the service’s active-duty workforce)—the same size as when the rate was consolidated in 1984. Since then, the media landscape has changed drastically, to include the constant churn of the 24-hour news cycle, the birth of the internet and social media, and the decline of print journalism. The idea that the Coast Guard can compete for cultural relevance in this information environment with its current workforce is laughable.
The service does not have the necessary personnel to adequately promote the service, much less to bring Goward’s branding solution to fruition. For example, Chicago is the third-largest media market in the country and is home to seven Coast Guard units with more than 160 Coast Guard personnel. There are no Coast Guard public affairs personnel stationed in the Chicago area; the closest public affairs support is more than three hours away in Cleveland. One of the vital roles of public affairs is to develop relationships with local media and communities to benefit the service during crisis communications, but it is unable to do this effectively. This is an extraordinary risk in today’s information environment. The lack of relationships and public affairs responsiveness could cause irreparable harm to the public’s trust in the service should a national-level incident happen in the region.
On average, there is one enlisted public affairs watchstander representing 22 Coast Guard units of varying size, in geographically diverse locations, often across multiple states, with varied missions. The folly of the current footprint was identified by the service’s own reports in the aftermath of both the Cosco Busan (2007) and Deepwater Horizon (2010) oil spills. These reports called for the public affairs program to be increased in size to decrease public affairs response times to sustain messaging during long-term events.11 For context, the public affairs response to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season consisted of half the rate, leaving skeleton crews across the nation to cover daily operations. The program simply cannot handle two national-level events at the same time.
Over the past decade, two operational analyses of the public affairs program have been completed, narrowly focusing on the tasks enlisted personnel complete and ignoring whether the manning structure meets the service’s needs. The Coast Guard must instead undertake a workforce analysis looking at the projected information environment, the Coast Guard’s footprint, and the national media footprint to develop a plan to build a proactive and responsive public affairs program. A detailed analysis such as this could build support to double or potentially triple the size of the program.
The public affairs program is accustomed to the lack of investment in its personnel. When the topic of increasing staffing is broached, the response often is, “If leadership is given the choice of buying another public affairs specialist or a boatswain’s mate, they’ll buy the boatswain’s mate.” Even the Government Accountability Office remarked on the service’s inaction on this topic, noting, “13 of the recommendations from one of the USCG’s after action reports, BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Incident Specific Preparedness Review (ISPR), were directed to the USCG’s Office of Governmental and Public Affairs, but personnel from the office said that they did not address the recommendations in that report.”12
The press coverage of the Coast Guard during the Cosco Busan and Deepwater Horizon oil spills was bad, but the same public affairs manning problems exist today. The information environment has changed so drastically that the current state of Coast Guard public affairs is now an organizational risk. It is an operational imperative to invest in the public affairs program to propel the service forward, break the famine-or-feast funding cycle, and ensure the service’s public image is prepared for a crisis communications situation.
In the past decade, the service has willed into existence three new rates and a cyber workforce during a budget-neutral environment because it determined it was operationally necessary. It is time to find the same fortitude and invest in a properly manned public affairs program, guided by the vision of experienced leaders capable of bringing the service to the forefront of the national identity. To be ready and responsive in the future, the Coast Guard must be in the public eye and relevant.
1. R. O’Rourke, “Coast Guard Deepwater Acquisition Programs: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress” (Washington, DC: U.S. Congressional Research Service, 2011).
2. “Coast Guard Avoids Proposed Budget Cut,” Military.com, 20 March 2017.
3. S. Maucione, “Coast Guard ‘Delighted’ by Boon in Budget, Plans on Addressing Maintenance Backlog,” Federal News Radio, 11 April 2018.
4. M. M. Kroll “Coast Guard Public Affairs Program History: The Search for Symmetry” (San Diego, CA: San Diego State University, 2017), 67–78.
5. U.S. Coast Guard, “Coast Guard External Affairs Manual,” COMDTINST M5700.13, pp. 1-1.
6. U.S. Marine Corps, “Strategic Communication Plan,” 3.
7. CAPT D. A. Goward, USCG, “Branding the Coast Guard,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 127, no. 7 (July 2001), 56.
8. D. Lamothe, “Trump Administration Plans to Use Coast Guard Money to Pay for Border Enforcement,” The Washington Post, 22 June 2018.
9. Goward, “Branding the Coast Guard.”
10. Photojournalist First Class R. Fullerton, USCG, “Public Affairs: We’re Missing the Boat!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 106, no. 10 (October 1980).
11. R. J. Papp, “Final Action Memorandum – Incident Specific Preparedness Review (ISPR) Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” U.S. Coast Guard (2018), 65-69.
12. M. Bell, “The USCG’s Oversight of Recommendations from Deepwater Horizon After Action Reports,” Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General (2014), 4.
Lieutenant Commander Pecora is the executive officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca (WMEC-906). A permanent cutterman, she previously has served on board the USCGC Sitkinak (WPB-1329), Bertholf (WMSL-750), and twice on board the Sherman (WHEC-720). She also has served as the external affairs officer for the Fifth Coast Guard District. She is a 2004 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy for civil engineering and earned her master’s degree in media and communications studies from Florida State University in 2013.