Tag Archives: political communication

Growing the Guard: A Campaign from the Defense Policy Front Lines

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.

Photo courtesy of the California Military Department

Photo courtesy of the California Military Department

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.

Will Martin is deputy director of public affairs for the California Military Department. A former McClatchy Newspapers reporter and editor on the East Coast, he now calls Sacramento and the military his full-time home. He began graduate studies in communication through Johns Hopkins University this year. You can find him on Twitter at @wmartin89 or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/pub/will-martin/17/558/240/.

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Putting the Pieces Together

Each class I teach in political and governmental communication lasts about three hours.  But preparing to teach the classes took me more than 30 years, mainly because the operative principles behind the skills I teach aren’t in textbooks.  They weren’t in any of the journalism or communication classes I took as an undergraduate.  The theories and concepts behind them were only addressed tangentially in graduate school.  And even then they were cloaked in scholarly discussions in an alien tongue punctuated by parenthesized cites of other scholarly discussions in alien tongues.  So, it took me a while to put the pieces together about the practice of effective public (government and political) communication because I had to learn most of it by doing it. 

Here are some of the pieces:

  1. Effective public communication has one purpose: to persuade people to agree with the communicator, to win an election or win on a public policy issue. 
  2. Winning in politics and government means you must not only persuade a majority of the public, voters or decision-makers to agree with you, but motivate them to take an action as well.
  3. This persuasion can only occur when the message makes enough connection with the audience to be received, considered and, if the communication is effective, accepted.
  4. Part of making that connection is communicating in words, phrases, signs and symbols that your audience understands.   

A lot of veteran political and government communicators insist that all you need to do to is give people facts; the data; even the fiscal impact in trillions of dollars over ten years.  “The public isn’t stupid.  They’ll figure it out.  They know what’s important.” 

The public is absolutely not stupid.  But most people are pretty focused on their own lives, their family, their career, their next rent or house payment, how the car’s running, retirement, friends, their church, their next vacation, etc.  A government policy, even something very important, is probably about 43rd on their list of things to worry about.  But, connect what you’re talking about to people’s lives and they’re a lot more likely to pay attention.

When you’re trying to communicate with people, talk like people talk.  Policy communication is frequently filled with authoritative data, legal, budgetary details and history or other supportive and content information.  Professionals need to thoroughly analyze potential policy solutions, kick ideas and concepts back and forth looking for weaknesses, incorrect assumptions or additional approaches, and weigh possibilities against needs.  These conversations are quite naturally conducted in the language of their issue, using jargon, shorthand phrases and acronyms that all the participants understand.  

Communication problems occur when those participants assume the general public also speaks their language, and that their own familiarity with abstract concepts and technical information is universally shared.  That’s how we wind up with public discussions of education policies that agendize, aggregate or disintermediate differentiated lessons and engagement structures to ensure constructivist, assessment-driven and mastery-focused curricula that are maximally impactful.

Most people don’t talk like that, and if you do, most people will have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.  The policy message needs to be translated into language for broader audiences. 

Making a message effective may include adding a bit of emotion.  You don’t have to evoke white-hot anger, abject fear or make children cry.  Just a bit of real human connection can make a policy message much more interesting to the public and therefore more effective.

After you’ve developed a devastatingly brilliant issue or political message, you need to be sure it’s going to reach the right people.  The most lethal ammunition in the world isn’t worth squat if it doesn’t hit what you’re shooting at.  What are the best ways to target your communication to the right audience?  Do you have multiple audiences?  Do they all get the same message, or are there different messages for different groups? 

These and a lot of other real-world lessons may be in a textbook somewhere.  I’m still looking.

By Dave Helfert

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