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The Ultimate Communications Primer for the Defense Industry

When we think of the skills that matter in the defense industry, usually what comes to mind is STEM, analytics, military experience, and so on. Communications is often overlooked or at least its role is poorly understood in this arena. Yet, it’s the grease that keeps the wheels turning in this industry, in more ways than you might realize.

Recently at my company, I gave a presentation to a group of summer interns about the role of communications in engineering and defense. With the exception of my own intern who is doing his master’s degree in mass communications, the rest of my audience was made up of engineering, cybersecurity, and mathematics students. My goal was not only to demonstrate the value of comms in the industry, but to educate these future engineers and scientists about the most effective way to interact with their comms leads in order to maximize the impact of their work.

Get excited for the comms magic

To illustrate, I started off the presentation with one of those classic trick questions that invites blank stares: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? I explained that if an engineer develops an incredible invention, but he doesn’t know how to communicate its value or disseminate the product via the right channels, then does it make the intended impact?

At the most fundamental level, the comms professional gets the word out there (easier said than done!). To demonstrate the many ways a comms lead creates impact for engineers, I provided a list of some of the following common “services” we provide:

  1. Creating engagement (via written content, video, podcast, graphics, etc.)

  2. Generating media coverage

  3. Monitoring public opinion

  4. Managing crises in the public eye

  5. Encouraging investments

  6. Influencing leadership/legislation

  7. Searching for new project opportunities

  8. Running social media platforms

  9. Enhancing recruitment efforts (academic liaison)

  10. Supporting events (industry trade shows, speaking engagements, conferences, webinars)

  11. Enhancing internal communications, including leadership-employee relations

  12. Protecting/managing the company brand

Your comms lead is basically Captain Planet. Don’t you forget that 😊

The comms professional you work with might be a generalist who is involved in most or even all of the above-mentioned activities; alternatively, a comms professional might specialize in one or two of these areas, delivering a higher level of expertise. Ideally, you want to work with a comms professional who is also a good storyteller, because if your team doesn’t get its own story out there, someone else might try to tell it for you.

So, how exactly can you be a better communications partner? It starts with knowing the right questions to ask. Below are several basic questions a comms lead is likely to ask at a project launch. Try to answer as many of these questions ahead of time with your team before you bring comms on board, so you can hit the ground running:

• What is the team’s goal? (Project objective)

• Who is our target audience? (There may be more than one…)

• How can we reach our audience(s)?

• What is the most effective way to “speak” to this audience? And through which channels?

• What are our deliverables?

• What’s the call to action (CTA)?

Here’s another little secret to being a great communicator: know thy audience. In other words, put yourself in their shoes. A common mistake I see in this industry are communications that are overly technical for their audience and therefore miss the mark. It’s not enough to know who your audience is; you must determine their level of tech knowledge and ensure you provide the proper context.

Your target audience can’t be “everyone,” so narrow it down

Other questions to consider when stepping into your target audience’s shoes:

• What specific challenge am I trying to solve for my audience?

• What is the value that I’m delivering to this audience (discuss benefits before product features)?

• What is the most interesting thing I can say about this project (save the best for first, not last)?

Ultimately, communications are about maximizing the impact of your work. So, next time you embark on a project, take a moment to put on your comms hat. Think about your audience, consider the questions a comms lead might ask, and be proud of the story you’re creating around your valuable work.

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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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