Monday, December 19, 2005

Why the War Effort Doesn't Sell At Home

The biggest problem is the military and DoD themselves. We can say all we want about media slant or even talk about the general distrust of grunts on the ground for media types and thus general avoidance, but the real problems start with the military hierarchy and winds their way down until the message is gone.

Before I start listing off the major issues, pointing out the obvious and generally destroying the military information effort, let me make a few general points.

There was a time in America when people actually knew who their neighbors were. They went to church with them, had barbecues, their kids played ball, were in the cub scouts, went to the local fair and actually knew many people walking around there, not just the few people they came with. When they went to war, they went to war together. Units were "local" and everybody knew somebody who went to war. They knew their mail man, the dry cleaner and the guy who ran the gas station.

It doesn't work that way anymore. Even if National Guard Units are pulled from the local populace, if the populace is over 50,000, it's highly likely they've never met a serving member. If the population is over 100,000, there's a large possibility that people don't even know there is a national guard armory in their town. Forget it if the town is over 500k.

Then again, it doesn't mean that "community" has been completely lost. Community pride is expressed in various ways. Even in a city of 500k, people are familiar with the different areas of their city and definitely know how to get about, so they are connected. In older cities, the local community is actually as tight as some rural communities because people have lived there for generations.

In short, in some way, people feel connected to their city, towns and neighborhoods.

People know locally where the best place to get a Pizza is, or which video stores carry the movies they want. They know if grocery store A has better produce than grocery store B and that grocery store C has a butcher department that prepares meat fresh everyday. They know if the garage down the street has a "real mechanic" that can actually fix cars or if its some franchise with a technician barely out of tech school that only knows how to put the diagnostic machine on the car, charge an arm and a leg and still not get their car fixed.

People are connected and buy locally.

Conversely, companies sell locally. National and international corporations might have a great product, but how they sell it in New York is not going to get the same product sold in Marysville, KS. While big media campaigns might go on for many products on national and international channels, much advertisement is done at a local or more drilled down demographic.

For instance, a guy in New York City will buy a truck if it looks like a car, has a CD player with subwoofers and shiny chrome parts with the option to get the smaller engine for better gas mileage, a bed liner because its cool and the short bed that will allow them to park somewhere, but the guy in Oklahoma wants a long bed, with lots of passenger room, a strong engine, major towing capacity, strong shocks and a bed liner in order to protect the bed when he throws rocks in the back or to insure the lumber he just bought doesn't go sliding around.

On top of that, he wants to buy it from the dealer down the road that he bought his other truck from before, not some guy from New York City where he can't go touch it, look at it and test drive it.

In short, you might have a national product, but you have to sell it locally.

Every good businessman knows that.

But, apparently not the military. They are too pre-occupied with controlling information and battling out with the national media for some sort of decent coverage when the national media's market is across the whole nation and, in trying to sell to the whole nation, must make certain decisions about what and how long they cover a story. They are a commercial product, after all. Thus the military completely neglects the local markets. An extremely bad business decision.

How do you get the local market to buy your national product?

There are a few proven methods, but the best method is to brand it locally.

Why does GM provide funds and marketing video to local car dealerships? So the local dealership can create a local commercial, complete with his location, any local deals available and a local character who, by far, is perceived more trustworthy than some CEO up in Detroit.

Why does grocery store C in West Town advertise black angus beef steak or hamburger instead of the National Black Angus Cattle Association? Because consumers are shopping at grocery store C in West Town and have developed a relationship with the store. They don't know jack about the members of the National Black Angus Cattle Association.

In short, the product has to be perceived as local. Local=trustworthy. Or, at least, if it breaks down or is rancid when they get it home, they know where to go to, who to complain to and that they are going to get a response because local car salesman A does not want a bad reputation in the community. They know that this guy is going to be responsive because he depends on their local good graces to keep buying from him and not hurt his business.

So, even though society has growen apart in many ways, local is still the way to go.

A recent poll indicated that people with close ties to the military, either a serving family member, part of an auxillary or support group, tends to support the troops more, be more knowledgable about and support the missions more. They are less likely to be taken in buy two minute clips on TV or three paragraphs in the print with all the bad news that's fit to print.

If the DoD wants to get the message across, they need to stop spending so much time arguing with the national media and go local.

How can they do that, one may ask?

Let me make a few more observations before I make a few simple, though apparently earth shattering suggestions.

In the last three weeks I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to pull together open source information on locally deployed units to Iraq and Afghanistan. Information which I was hoping would be timely and worth linking to excite some local interest in our serving men and women, thus connecting them to the war and giving them a view that was less than 30,000 feet. 30,000 feet can be good sometimes for decision making, but usually you can't see the cars, the people or the local impact. You can't relate.

What I found is, besides two or three extremely short paragraphs mentioning deployments, redeployments, death and injury, there is very little reporting on local units, whether from the city or the state in genral. There is little coverage of local soldiers. Nothing about missions they are involved in or that Sgt Johnny Smith who hails from 94th and Sycamore in Shawnee, KS from the local national guard engineer company was on a mission last week (see picture) clearing mines, or a mission to track down insurgents or had received the bronze medal with a "V" for valor.

Now, we could blame this on the media alone, but that would be short sighted and wouldn't solve the problem. The best coverage on local soldiers was in very small local markets, largely small print papers where the readership might reach a few thousand readers. It was reported because they had ties with the local community, all of whom had probably provided care packages, wrote letters or had a serving member themselves. They also had little big news going on so they could devote time to interviewing Sgt. Johnny Smith's wife and parents as well as call up Johnny Smith over seas and get a few quotes from him. He's a home town guy after all.

Still, the readership of these markets are extremely small. On top of that, they can't afford the people to spend on searching war coverage on local service members and units anymore, maybe less, than a bigger out fit. And, believe me, they would have to search very hard and even then they might come up empty or with information so dry and old, petrified oatmeal looks better. So, these are nice long items printed about once every two months or so.

Even larger papers and local network news do not cover these things because they can't afford to put a reporter on it full time and they also have finite space. Worse yet, it is my firm belief that the military does not help them with it and believe me, the local newspaper and television stations know that they are losing circulation and viewership to national news agencies on the net, cable and print. They also need to budget their time and personnel to try and compete. Local papers and television news organizations are only viable if they can present important, timely, compelling and relevent information about local events and people. Yet, they cannot afford to embed a reporter or even send one to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once a year, if that, to get information on their local units or goings on in either of these countries. Instead, they have to rely on AP or Reuters or filtering information/film from their larger affiliate cable stations. They have to rely on their editing and search capabilities.

In short, they get the information handed to them and it often ends up being a repeat of the national news which anyone can get 24 hours of the day.

It seems like this is a match made in heaven. Both entities need to undercut the national media's strangle hold on information.

Here's where the problem comes in. The Defense people are going to say that they put out press releases every day, they are put on the AP wire, they are put on the defense link, DoD link, and in various other military websites and papers. Yet, there is still a problem.

I tried to search all these sites for relevent and timely press releases for our local units. I had actual unit names and couldn't find it. I found "similar" press releases that actually had nothing to do with the units I wanted to feature. So, I widened it out a bit and indicated "Missouri National Guard". That was too wide. I tried "Kansas City Missouri National Guard". Still not right. I tried "soldier Missouri". No go. I got 67,000 "related" sites that I did not have time to go through to complete my project. Particularly when the first ten pages were bunk.

It seems that, if the unit is not featured on one of the front page releases and you are not staring at the Defense link and Defend America link all day long, you are going to miss it and never find it.

Then I thought I was going to get crafty and look up the National Guard website for Missouri. I figure they must have an "in the news" section that would have some information. Very bad. Not only were the sites junky looking, the news they were reporting was old. Very old. The last piece up was dated around early October. Actually, it wasn't dated at all, I could only tell the time period because I knew when the unit had deployed and the press release indicated they had just got on station. Not to mention the information was "petrified oatmeal".

The rest of the news was equally old or petrified.

I tried to go to the base websites through which these units were affiliated, trained or were deployed from. Equally bad. The websites ranged from servicable with little news to down right ugly in a 1992 "I just learned how to do HTML" way with no news what so ever. (Frankly, if I was a soldier re-locating there or thinking about joining a branch of the service that was stationed there, trying to look up information, I would immediately immagine the worst podunk area that had base housing with peeling linoleum and large cockroaches; this is the part about "marketing" for recruits when you fail miserably because you have to compete with higher paying corporations and only the most stalwart, optimistic individual is going to give Ft. Leonard Wood the benefit of the doubt.)

I realize that there are some concerns about OPSEC, but we're talking about not even being able to find a simple, pre-approved press release about on going missions or personnel. Not even a link to a local paper that might actually take the time to report or have information on the locale and benefits on the location.

Some units did have their own websites and those were slightly better with "Chaplian Blogs" and monthly news letters from the commanders (some of these were not updated often). But, if you haven't gotten the picture yet, I spent hours looking for this information. That is something that the military simply cannot expect a time driven, competitive news organization to do when they already get the filtered prepared information from AP.

I went so far as to load units in "google" and other search engines hoping to catch an AP or Reuters regurgitation of a military press release. The results were equally thin (if not non-existent) and unappetizing.

There is the question about whether the military really wants to put a lot of information out. OPSEC vs. information war. And, make no mistake, this is an information war, not only with the enemy, but with our own media as to whose version of the war is going to shape the war, its continuing efforts and public opinion. Further, every soldier deployed or in a support position back home is a foot soldier in the battle. Even Don Rumsfeld and the DoD has recognized that, but the most they are pushing for is to get their men and women to go speak locally. Important, but how the heck is the media going to know somebody with knowledge is speaking if its not publicized?

I've also seen reports that the DoD is putting up local billboards to highlight local heroes and promote recruitment.

Good start, but I think that is like trying to sink a nuclear carrier by a shot from the Merrimack's cannon.

Before I make my list of suggestions to improve this situation and jump start improved local coverage, let me talk about the very product I am using to convey this message. It's extremely popular. Why? Because it not only provides more information than the media (sometimes, not, just the musings of a soldier and not any indepth information about missions and outcomes), but it is also "personal" which equates to "local" (even if the guy is really from California) which helps people relate. Plus, they can ask questions, give or get immediate feedback. The military nearly flinched from this valuable tool, issuing what could be perceived as highly restrictive OPSEC orders (though it was certainly required in some cases). Yet, the real mistake here is that the military is not taking advantage of this tool to its fullest and most valuable capacity.

Now, the question is, what can be done about this? I have a simple list of immediate problems, examples and, hopefully, simple suggestions (disregarding the long introduction).

1) Websites

    -Poor design, asthetics and often not user friendly
    -In order of usefulness and asthetics (local bases and units, probably could look at a wide range of Websites and get an even wider array of results)
    Ft. Riley, KS
    Ft. Leavenworth
    Fort Leonard Wood
    Missouri National Guard

    -Information that would be useful:
      a)Links to Unit Websites and approved blogs
        -Look at creating unit blogs for PAO, Commanders or designated person in the unit.
        -Blog posts can be set up to not post until given approval, but approval must be somewhat timely
        -These blog posts can be limited to some report on daily life, activities of the unit, commander's short comment on outcome and linking to news stories about the unit. Very similar to the unit news letters that usually go out, but more timely and accessible by citizens and media.
        -Links to approved personal blogs would need to state that links to these blogs do not constitute agreement or support of opinions expressed there in by the DoD, Branch of Military, or other government entities

      b) News Releases from the DoD (all) regarding units and their activities abroad and at home
      c) Searchable engines with ability to drill down to unit, state, and region (not specific location) of deployment and date range
      d) Sections for awards and ceremonies directly related to the base
      e) Insure all sites are updating their websites with the most timely information regarding units and people that relate to their organizations

    Keeping in mind that there are concerns about making information too easy to obtain, of course these suggestions are limited to approved websites and press releases. Things that could be searchable on the DoD website anyway with enough time and effort. What we are talking about is giving this same information locally and more speedily available to organizations who do not employ people to sit around and research all day long and who need to present timely information to their consumers as well as giving consumers direct access to by pass, if necessary (and isn't it?) usual media and information conduits. Cut out the middle man or make the middle man only as relevent as their own need to get and distribute information to be competitive.

2) Press Releases
    a) Review how press releases are distributed
      - Is this done through general conduits only?
      - Are these designated by unit and state affiliation to state news organizations (like the Missouri Associated Press) so that local units are specifically given coverage by their local papers and television news?
      - Are these press releases given directly to local news organization, television and print?
      - If organizations or consulting groups are used to push this information down, how effective are they?

    We are not talking about paying for placement or arm twisting, just providing the right information to the right conduits and giving them better access to relevent information. This may result in a few changes or improvements to how PAOs for bases and units operate.

    b) Flood the zone
      - If a soldier from Kansas City gets an award for bravery, it needs to get to Kansas City.
      - More than just the basic "soldier gets a medal", but the PAO or other should arrange that statements from the soldier and commander or relevant personnel are sent, not just to the general press release process, but to the local market where that soldier is from and/or resides.
      - If a local unit or unit with local personnel participates in significant action and there are press releases, this information must be sent to specific, local conduits

3) PAOs need to become publicists
    a)PAOs should have cultivated contacts in local media, not just in the small news papers or stations that surround the base, but in larger towns or cities near the base or within its "region" that would be relevant in reaching larger audiences
    b) PAOs should like the media (that's their jobs)
      Additional training should be provided on how to deal with hostile press, how to answer questions and how to frame information

    c) PAOs should be more active in relating back to these organizations freely instead of just being a name for "reference or questions" that can be contacted if the press wants to.
    d) PAOs should be prepared with background informationa and freely provide it (without being asked) on the unit, its past operations in relation to current activities, the history of personnel involved
      In short, in some ways they need to do the leg work and make it easier for the local press with limited resources to compete with larger organizations

Issues to be addressed:
    - Not every PAO needs to be active in this activity, but certainly further down than DoD press spokesmen and women.

The military, rightly or wrongly, is afraid of the impact of the spread of information on their operational security and of the information that might not match their message. Part of every war is controlling the message because it not only impacts how the home front feels about the war, but how neutral parties AND the enemy acts. However, the military, DoD in particular, but even further down the line to commanders and officers in the field who see war in its traditional lines, are more than a little shy, if not down right hostile, to using information warfare to shape the battle field and the perception of war. They feel that there mission is in strategy and movement on the actual field.

In my opinion, this is a very wrong perception. Particularly in small wars where, in fact, the message and information has as much of an impact on how the battle goes as any actual physical activity. In fact, based on the stumbling efforts of the DoD in the information war, such as overt attempts to place news in local media abroad instead of simply providing the information in a better, quicker and more relevant way, shows that they are still unsure and possibly undesiring, of entering this fray. They've lost the lessons of the past where the Department of War Information in World War II was much more active in pressing information.

I am not advocating lies or inappropriate propaganda, but, in fact, I am advocating using already available resources and information, simply using it better and using resources that are already available that the DoD has actually been extremely remiss in using.

As a final example, the military should be aware of the importance of Civil Affairs units and psy-op operations actually working at the local level, interacting with local leaders and making it personal. Again, I am not advocating inappropriate or false messages as some form of inward propaganda meant to fool the American populace. I am recommending that the military, and any administration from this day forward, understand why this process works and how to use it in getting the message out when a petrified and fearful media (fearful of becoming a propaganda machine, which, by refusing the message of the administration, but freely representing the message of the enemy without any real criticism or analysis, is in fact acting as a propaganda machine).

In summary, Go Local. Use information as a tool beyond the immediate battle field.

While the military is slowly beginning to recognize and evolve in other areas of warfare, it is not giving much time, space or resources for this one area of necessarily evolving warfare.

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