(Proceedings February 2008)
By Steve Cohen
In the stiff competition for professional talent and congressional dollars, the Navy needs to do more about its public image—and fast.
Last summer, a civilian posed a question to then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen during one of his "conversations with the country."
"Admiral, you have a room fullof folks here who are supporters of the Sea Services. You've made a strong case for the importance of a coherent maritime strategy. Now, what would you like us to do?" Bill Butler asked.
Admiral Mullen uncharacteristically hemmed and hawed and seemed surprised by the question. Finally, he said, "We want to hear from you. You each have two senators and a congressman. Be in touch with them."Mr. Butler, a top marketing executive, persisted. "But what should we be asking of these officials? What, exactly, do you want from them?" The admiral never did offer a clear answer. But he did make a telling admission. "We're not good at marketing. It's not what we do."
While the admiral's candor was admirable, the comment was disturbing, especially in light of the Navy's dismal showing in a2004 Gallup poll that asked two key questions of the public: Which is the most important branch of the military? And which is the most prestigious? The Navy came out next to last on both, just a few percentage points above the Coast Guard.
Such data strongly suggest that the Navy must get better at marketing. After all, the service is not merely competing in the arena of global geopoliticalpower. It is also competing in the arena of domestic public perception. Lose in the latter and we won't have the resources to win in the former. During one of Admiral Mullen's "conversations," a naval officer on the staff of a senior admiral admitted that Navy leadership found the Gallup results disturbing. The question he never asked outright was whether professional marketing could help solve theperception problem.
Too Much Focus on Public Affairs
The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes—but only if the Navy masters marketing as a discipline. Just as naval officers master disciplines outside the traditional purview of sea power—financial management, for example—they need to master marketing, too. The problem is that the Navy's focus on public affairs—rather than marketing—isdepriving it of several key tools to get the job done. In short, public affairs officers must be marketers, too.
The Navy may not be a business in the classic sense, but it does share some defining attributes. It must satisfy customers—the American people and their elected leaders. It must compete for resources—funding from Congress. It must compete for the talent of young people considering othercareer choices. And it must do so in an efficient and forthright manner. (Indeed, compared to business, the Navy must meet much higher standards of transparency and accountability.) In short, much of what the Navy has to do to achieve its mission is marketing-dependent.
To be sure, the Navy's public affairs organization is aware of and responsible for much of this. In an hour-long conversation withthe Chief of Information (CHINFO), Rear Admiral Frank Thorp IV, I found that I was in agreement with and often impressed by his insights into how to take on these challenges. But I was also frustrated for him: the Navy, because of its inattention to marketing, seems to be fighting this fight with one hand tied behind its back. And it doesn't have to be that way. Four serious issues need to beaddressed immediately:
• Recruitment—Is the Navy meeting its needs? Are its dollars being efficiently spent?
• Retention—Are we keeping our best officers and Sailors?
• Appropriations—Is the Navy being well-served by Congress?
• The Big Stick—Does the Navy effectively project American power, whether calling on friendly ports or sailing into combat?
As long as the United...