An Army of Thousands More: How PR Firms and Major Media Help Military Recruiters

Army recruiting poster

Increasing "the ranks of our military" is "one of the first steps we can take together" to "position America to meet every challenge that confronts us," said President Bush in last week's State of the Union address. "Tonight I ask the Congress to authorize an increase in the size of our active Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 in the next five years."

The 92,000 figure was put forward by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 12 that more troops are needed to boost "combat capability" and "strengthen our military for the long war against terrorism." The Pentagon plans to meet that goal by reenlisting former Marines and increasing the Army's recruitment and retention rates.

Under the plan, the Army would only "slightly increase its recruitment goals -- by 2,000 to 3,000" a year, according to UPI. But in 2005, "the Army failed to meet its annual recruiting goal by the widest margin in two decades," reported the New York Times. To meet its 2006 goal, the Army hired more recruiters, raised the maximum allowable age for recruits, doubled the percentage of recruits who scored low on aptitude tests, issued waivers for some recruits' prior convictions, and significantly increased cash bonuses.

If it was that difficult for the Army to meet past recruiting goals, how will it meet future, larger ones? Some clues are offered in the Army's self-nomination for a prestigious public relations award.

The Army submitted its "Birth of an Army, Birth of Freedom: The U.S. Army 225th Birthday Campaign" for consideration in the Public Relations Society of America's 2001 Silver Anvil Awards. (The Army won an award, but then so did the U.S. Northern Command in 2006, for "outstanding achievement in strategic public relations planning and implementation in response to Hurricane Katrina.")

The nomination documents provide a rare, detailed look at Army recruiting, including how the largest branch of the U.S. armed forces works with public relations firms and major media to meet recruiting goals. Moreover, they illustrate how a small campaign, by Pentagon standards -- the Army spent $370,000 and used its "in-house marketing team" -- can reach tens of millions of people, thanks in large part to uncritical support from broadcast outlets.

Ketchum as Catch Can

Following significant troop reductions throughout the 1990's, "the Army was becoming disconnected from the American people," explains the awards nomination. "Recruiting new soldiers had become increasingly more difficult, with the Army having not met its recruiting goals" for fiscal years 1997 through 1999. The Army's public affairs staff -- the government's preferred description for its PR people -- hoped that a concerted media campaign could "assist recruiting efforts by using the Army 225th Birthday as a mechanism for attracting potential recruits."

The Army drew on extensive research to develop the campaign, including a survey by a major and controversial PR firm. "In conjunction with the Army's Training With Industry program at Ketchum, an Army Public Affairs officer worked with Ketchum's research department to conduct attitudinal research about the Army," the awards nomination states. "The study was focused on regions of the United States without a large military presence."

Remember Armstrong Williams, the conservative pundit outed for promoting No Child Left Behind while secretly pocketing payments from the Bush administration? He was a subcontractor on Ketchum's PR contract with the U.S. Department of Education. Ketchum also produced video news releases, or fake TV news reports, for the Education and Health and Human Services Departments that were later found to be illegal covert propaganda. When Ketchum won another major government contract in 2005, to promote the Medicare drug benefit, the Washington Post felt the need to note that "the firm promised the new ads will not cross the legal line."

Army 225 logo

For the Army, Ketchum conducted interviews with 321 people, either "parents of school-aged children" or "students in high school or just starting college" from across the United States, or "Pittsburgh consumers." Among the positive findings of the firm's "Reconnecting the U.S. Army to America Survey" was: "A majority of respondents acknowledge the Army's role in exploring and settling the country (70%), and an equal number realize that technology developed by the Army has beneficial civilian applications."

Among the negative survey findings was: "Army life is seen as incompatible with today's lifestyle and is hard on families." Perhaps more worrying for recruiters was: "Even though most respondents have had a family member in the military (75%), less than half would encourage a young person -- who is not a family member -- to join the Army (45%). And even fewer would encourage a family member to join (38%)."

Several respondent comments listed in the Ketchum survey are from students describing experiences with Army recruiters. "A recruiter tried to convince my 15-year-old brother to join," said one. "This should be illegal to talk to a 15 year old. He successfully 'snowed' my brother and his friends." Another simply mentioned, "A recruiter for the Army took me out to eat and gave me information." A few students credited recruiters with changing their views of the Army: "I am a high school freshman and an Army recruiter visited us. I have a positive opinion now because I know more and understand what they do."

Focus Groups for the Troops

The Army's campaign theme -- "Birth of an Army, Birth of Freedom" -- was based on the survey results. "An overriding consideration in this theme's selection was a finding from the Ketchum study," explains the awards nomination. "The study found that many Americans have no idea of the Army's contributions to American society -- especially its greatest contribution, securing the nation's independence."

The three main campaign messages, to "be included in communication with all audiences and media," were also developed in response to the Ketchum survey:

  • "Past: We have a country because we had an Army.
  • "Present: The Army is the doer of the nation's deeds.
  • "Future: The Army is America's guardian of democracy and protector of freedom."

In April 2000, the Army tested these messages, campaign graphics and other materials on a group of Indiana University students. In addition to serving as a focus group, the students provided useful information on their media habits. "Television is the most important medium to college students," notes the awards nomination, especially "on weekends" and, to reach male students, "sports programming."

The Army used other research to further refine and target its birthday campaign. Citing a National Association of Secretaries of State youth study, the Army noted the impact that "parents, teachers, coaches and other influencers" have on young people's decisions, and that "traditional appeals to to civic duty do not spur youth to action." From the Defense Department's Youth Attitude Tracking Study, the Army noted that African-American and Hispanic youth "displayed significantly higher levels of propensity [to enlist] than did White youth," and that the Internet is "a viable medium for providing military information to today's youth." (The latter was a more revelatory finding for a 1997 report than it may seem today.)

Lastly, from the Army's own Recruiting Command State of the Youth Market Report, Army officers crafting the birthday campaign noted that "young people get their impressions about life in the military mainly from movies / television, friends and family members." And while "the propensity of young people to serve in the military is declining," the most receptive audiences are 16-year-old white students and 17-year-old students of color, with a "late surge" of interest among 22-year-old Hispanic and African-American youth.

Media Gratification

Based on the media habits of its target audiences, the Army set "three overarching guidelines" for its birthday campaign communications plan: "Emphasize broadcast over print media"; "Incorporate sporting events into the plan"; and "Use the Web."

The birthday campaign was particularly successful with national television outlets, which were approached by Army public affairs officers and the New York-based "strategic marketing public relations firm" Cohn & Wolfe. On June 14, the Army's official birthday, the Army scored "a clean sweep of all morning news programs," boasts the awards nomination. Ann Curry of NBC's "Today Show" even "made a live tandem parachute jump with the Army Golden Knights parachute team," which "received the most coverage of any single birthday event."

Other national media hits included C-SPAN, the Washington Post, and the "Imus in the Morning" radio show. The head of the Army's Recruiting Command was featured in a satellite media tour -- a series of sponsored and often scripted interviews with different TV stations -- that reached nearly one million viewers in six states and Washington DC. "Birthday greetings from such celebrities as Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Tom Brokaw and Miss America 2000" were featured on the Army's own television newscast, which airs on domestic and international bases, as well as "85 commercial cable outlets." Not surprisingly, the History Channel featured Army-related programming throughout the week.

Army 230 cake with NASCAR
In 2005, the Army celebrated its 230th birthday with its NASCAR driver

Special events garnered even more media coverage. The Army's birthday run was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America." Yankee Stadium's "Army Day," complete with parachuters, recruiters and "a Humvee display," was covered by ESPN. CNN was among the networks filming when "the secretary of the Army, sergeant major of the Army and soldiers dressed in period uniforms rang the opening bell" of the New York Stock Exchange. Other "local and national recruiting events were conducted with extensive support" from Cohn & Wolfe, according to the awards nomination.

"Print media found little interest in the Army celebrating its 225th Birthday," but broadcast media "were extremely receptive of the Pitch Kit's storyboards." That's not too surprising, given television's well-documented appetite for the stunts, celebrity endorsements, fake news and other promotional fluff that the Army was offering. Still, the "unprecedented" media coverage reached more than 73 million people, often directing news audiences to Army websites.

Three websites were specifically created for the Army campaign. The main birthday website was "oriented to the general public." The "history site" described "contributions the Army has made to our nation." Remarkably, a list of the Army's "Top 10 Contributions to Civilization" included in the awards nomination has as number four, "Being a model for the integration of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and women." Lastly, the "soldier site," judged to be the "most compelling and successful" of the three, included "an Army insignia game and an opportunity to register to win prizes and gift certificates."

For the New Recruits

The June 2000 birthday campaign was "the largest and most ambitious communications undertaking" by the Army at the time. And it did help recruiting efforts, according to the awards nomination.

Calls to the Army's toll-free phone number "increased during the campaign and during the week of the birthday were 70 percent more than the previous year." More than 5,000 calls came in that week. Traffic to the Army's recruiting website also "increased as the campaign unfolded," reaching nearly 550 percent above the previous year's levels. On June 14, the Army's official birthday and the peak of the campaign media coverage, website visits were "up an incredible 964 percent." Over the birthday week, some 70,000 online "visitor sessions" were logged.

The Army credits its birthday campaign with helping it meet "recruiting goals for the first time in three years." This boast is made in an awards nomination, without providing the number of new recruits attributed to the campaign. But the important question today, as the Pentagon seeks to increase the Army's size, is how likely current recruiting efforts are to adopt the media tactics of this pre-9/11 campaign.

The short answer: very likely, though today's efforts will probably benefit from bigger budgets and focus more on new media. After all, potential recruits' characteristics, concerns and media habits haven't changed that much -- with the exception that cell phones, blogs and social networking sites are now in the mix.

More than anything, the Army still needs to sway older "influencers." While discussing the new troop increases, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu remarked, "Our real challenge out there isn't the young people ... it's parents, coaches, teachers ... who, when asked by a young person, 'Well, Dad, Mom, should I do this' -- too often get a sour and unsupportive answer." Last year, the Army explained its new slogan, "Army strong," in part by saying it highlights "the transformative powers of the Army" to potential recruits' family members and friends.

Of the recent Army media contracts listed in a January 2006 report, several seek to strengthen Army public affairs training, process and technical support. Others involve research and message development to present "the Army's strategic perspective in the Global War on Terrorism" and "media pitches, speakers service and bureau, and news story development in support of the Soldiers in the Global War on Terror," as I reported previously.

These contracts suggest a greater role for public relations in Army recruiting efforts. But with an unpopular war in Iraq, an increasingly unstable situation in Afghanistan, and mounting numbers of U.S. military casualties, will media outlets be as receptive to Army pitches as they were in 2000? Only time will tell.