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3 Common Pitfalls in Defense Communications

The defense market is tough. There are a lot of companies offering cutting-edge technologies to a relatively small pool of decision makers. Business planning is difficult in the face of constant emerging threats, leaving militaries with a set of shifting priorities regarding capabilities for future warfighting. As a result, the defense ecosystem is complex and the procurement contracts are usually executed in stages over several years.

This means that defense communications have to be highly flexible and responsive to fluctuating market conditions. While prioritizing the government/military customer, defense communicators need to also take into account other target audiences as well. Branding is just as important: the company’s brand affects recruitment of new employees, retention of current employees, and the overall reputation of the company in the market.

It’s certainly a balancing act. To do it right, it’s important to be aware of the communications pitfalls that are most likely to affect the defense industry. I describe three below that I believe are fairly common, along with the potential consequences of ignoring these pitfalls:

1. Hesitancy to take public credit.

Many defense companies are hesitant to take public credit and not only because of the sometimes secretive or classified nature of their programs: many companies quietly step aside to allow the government customer or law enforcement to publicize success when a new drone technology helps stop a drug cartel, for example. Perhaps the company takes public credit when the technology is first released, but the success stories are what actually stick in the public’s mind.

Interestingly, according to Loren Thompson, a national security expert contributor at Forbes, the companies that get positive coverage in the media when discussing defense acquisition tend to be smaller commercial enterprises with outspoken leaders, like Palantir. Meanwhile, the larger, traditional companies are more likely to be criticized in the media for cost overruns or schedule delays, glossing over the reliability and long shelf life of some of these companies’ quality signature products.

Taking public credit is a delicate balancing act, since if done incorrectly it can backfire and anger the customer. But not taking it at all when there is an appropriate occasion is a missed opportunity for enhancing the company’s brand. This has a direct effect on recruiting efforts, especially among the next generation of engineers.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard college STEM students deride the defense industry as a “dinosaur” or claim that such companies “lack creativity.” This has more to do with perception than reality since the biggest defense companies manage to innovate at a furious pace in comparison to their commercial counterparts.

The consequence: Strategic communications in the defense sector can’t afford to only focus on the government customer. Over time, the company risks an attrition of top recruitment. Young engineers coming into the market have a lot of options these days…why choose defense when you can go somewhere “really cool” like SpaceX or Apple?

2. The role of communications may take a back seat at the c-suite table.

If there is no chief communications officer (CCO) or chief marketing officer (CMO) sitting at the c-suite table—or, if they have a seat, but their role is not fully appreciated—the CEO is more likely to have unrealistic expectations of the results. Naturally, this problem will trickle down into the rest of the company and can ultimately have a negative effect on marketing implementation, brand control, recruitment, and customer metrics.

According to Harvard Business Review, eighty percent of CEOs claim they don’t trust or are unimpressed by their CMOs. (So obviously this is a problem that goes beyond the defense industry.) The reasons range from poor job design to a lack of realistic success metrics and so on. But the bottom line is that companies suffer when there is a lack of synergy between the CEO and communications leadership.

Another thing to keep in mind: the role of communications is not just to communicate outwards, but to also listen. This includes collecting insights through surveys, focus groups, and social listening—inside and outside the company. Listening helps leadership accurately assess the attitudes and desires of the government customer, current employees (including how satisfied they are at the company), and potential recruits. The c-suite needs solid actionable intelligence collected by communications professionals to do their jobs right.

The consequence: Without strong representation in the c-suite, there will be a lack of long-term strategic focus when it comes to shaping communications campaigns that are calibrated to the company’s business objectives. The CEO may also lack critical intelligence regarding how the company is viewed by both external stakeholders and employees.

3. Overreliance on tactics versus strategy.

In an industry that must respond to rapidly changing demands, communicators can easily fall into the trap of focusing all of their energy on tactical communications—with long-term strategic planning pushed to the back burner. But communicators must think strategically and then act tactically; strategy should define tactics, not the other way around.

The SWOT is a good starting point for strategic communications.

Image source: Leaders Exceed

A company will struggle to develop tactics that effectively support the business need, unless leadership creates breathing room for communications specialists to concentrate on strategy. Regular department tag-ups that focus exclusively on strategic planning, along with setting benchmarks, can significantly help.

The consequence: If communications are too reactive, the company’s tactics will eventually fail to innovate parallel to competitors. Eventually, the company’s brand will appear outdated and out of touch.

The bottom line: To maintain a competitive advantage, defense communications must be both responsive and proactive. Proper emphasis on strategic planning and taking public credit when appropriate will significantly help the company’s communications remain aligned with its business goals.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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