Tom is a police officer who lives in my neighborhood. Recently, we were joking around comparing our respective companies’ branded coffee tumblers. My tumbler was a little worn around the edges, having been used fairly frequently since my onboarding as a new employee. Tom’s tumbler was still shiny and new, the latest swag from a police recruiting event he had helped out with the week before.
“How did the recruiting event go?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t the turnout we were hoping for,” he admitted, shaking his head. “In fact, police recruitment across the country has been pretty bad for a while now.”
He listed the reasons on his fingertips: low salaries were making it hard to compete with the private sector. COVID-19 had prevented the police from staging in-person recruitment events at high schools and colleges. And then there was the bad PR. (This is mainly related to the highly publicized tensions in the U.S. in the past few years involving the police.) Basically, bad PR was not only scaring off potential recruits, according to Tom, but making even current police officers feel discouraged enough to retire early.
As I listened to his complaints, I realized that some of the issues the police are having with recruitment are actually similar to other branches of law enforcement and the military, making this a concern of national security proportions.
Out of all these entities, one could argue that the military has been hit just as hard as the police, if not harder. Anyone who follows this issue in the media knows that the U.S. military is struggling with its recruitment numbers to the point that the Pentagon is getting involved. According to Bloomberg, through the end of June, the Army had signed up 22,000 troops, 60% below its annual target. It could end the year with as few as 445,000 troops, nearly 40,000 smaller than the force size authorized by Congress.
Below is a summary of what military leadership currently views as the primary reasons behind this crisis (again, some of these reasons affect other law enforcement and defense-related organizations as well):
1. COVID-19: Mass high school closures during the pandemic means that military recruiters were unable to show up in person to connect with potential candidates.
2. Competitive job market: It’s not easy to match the pay in the private sector.
3. Health requirements: A rise in obesity and other health problems is disqualifying an increasing number of young Americans.
4. Poor PR: Many young Americans don’t view the military with the same respect as previous generations and are concerned about sexual harassment, PTSD, and other negative reports that they hear about in the news. (Note: it’s certainly important to talk openly about these incidents; unfortunately, they often eclipse the positive aspects of the military if not taken in fair proportion.)
According to Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, “Overall public perception of the military is often inaccurate, with negative publicity overshadowing the tangible benefits and positive global impact airmen make every day.”
Senator Thom Tillis, at the same hearing, continued this sentiment to its natural conclusion: “The result of these prevailing narratives is a misinformed American public who do not know much about the military, but what they do know is mostly incorrect.”
As a communications strategist in the U.S. defense industry,* I’m always on the lookout for creative solutions to complex problems. This sometimes includes solutions that are slightly quirky or at least less obvious. Obviously, even the most brilliant communications can’t solve all of the military’s recruitment woes, but I’d like to recommend three novel PR approaches that demonstrate perhaps overlooked opportunities:
Recommendation #1: Treat the military recruitment crisis like a product marketing problem.
Meaning, treat the military as if it were a product or brand you want to sell. Then treat your recruiting base as if they were potential buying customers. Ask yourself questions like:
1. Where is my target audience most likely to come across my product?
2. How does this audience currently see my brand and why?
3. How can I overcome any existing (negative) perceptions of my brand?
4. Which channels are the most popular for this audience and how can I be more visible there?
5. What is the most effective way to speak to this audience? Who is the ideal spokesperson in this case?
6. What are the pain points of this audience? (Note: if you are recruiting in a low-income area, for example, being able to afford college is a major pain point…The military can help with that!)
7. Who are my competitors? Is there a way for me to “one-up” them, even if it’s just a single feature?
8. What marketing tactics have been used in the past that worked in similar situations?
“The Army has to recognize that there’s been an evolution in that young population,” explained U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, chair of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel. “And if you’re going to target that young population for service, you’ve got to make it appealing to them.”
If you check out the GoArmy website, you’ll immediately see that the benefits for enlisting are substantial: great healthcare coverage, loads of paid time off, job stability, better rates on home loans, education and career training at little to no cost, and so on. There are also qualitative personal benefits, such as challenging yourself to new heights, connection to a supportive community, and the satisfaction of serving your country.
The problem is that the people who are most likely to visit the GoArmy site are already interested in the army. Which leads me to my next point…
Recommendation #2: Hire brilliant 20-something social media whizzes to spread the word.
What is the best way to get the word out to the younger generation in places where the army isn’t even on their radar? Social media. And what is the best way to do it? Create content that is inspiring, entertaining, and ultimately “sticky” enough to encourage word of mouth.
As a communications strategist with extensive experience in multimedia projects, I still have to admit...it’s hard to compete with the 20-somethings when it comes to producing fast and entertaining media. They’re natives in this world and they’re just so damn good at it. I still grab coffee with people I used to babysit for just so I can learn from their perspective, as well as their ability to create content that is most likely to go viral.
This age segment of the workforce is the closest you can get to high school students, which means they still have their finger on the pulse of this target recruiting base. Listen to them carefully and if you have the opportunity to hire a few good ones away from the private sector, make a juicy deal and reel them in.
Recommendation #3: Lean hard on video.
According to SproutSocial, nearly 40% of Gen Z say they’re directly influenced by products they see on TikTok, so the military might as well try making themselves a hot product on this channel. Note that this age demographic is flocking away from Facebook and Instagram to TikTok and Snapchat. This means that out of all the content types, video is key here.
There is also something about “homemade” video that makes the news seem more personal. While the traditional news media will always have its place as a source of information, slightly undone video allows leadership and other soldiers to speak more directly to its audience in a way that feels more authentic.
If there is a crisis—for example, a sexual harassment case in the army that hits the press—leadership needs to be ready to speak clearly and directly to the camera and then disseminate those videos across all strategic channels to reach their young audience. You can’t hide from anything these days on the internet, so you might as well put your voice out there first.
To be clear, I’m not advocating propaganda. I’m advocating for amplifying the existing, positive stories that current (young) soldiers are willing to share with the public. Take those stories and jazz them up with short videos that feature eye-catching effects and a good dose of humor across popular platforms. Create the kind of material that goes viral. Hire the marketing pros who know your audience best (their near peers) and be willing to explore unusual channels.
Be entertaining, be inspiring, be real. The truth is there is already an inspiring treasure trove of stories in our military. We just need to learn how to share them more effectively on the right channels, with voices that resonate.
Additional Recommended Reading:
* Disclaimer: As a communications strategist for MITRE Corporation, my role does not include tackling the issue of military recruitment. The views represented in this article are mine alone.
* * *
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.