The Canadian public is more engaged in defence procurement than ever before. Gone are the days when the government of Canada could spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a military platform with little or no public reaction.
Some might say we have the Joint Strike Fighter program to thank for this, while others might just attribute the change to the evolving nature of our country’s procurement process and the communications context within which it is changing. Whatever the reason, Canadians are becoming more involved in where their tax dollars are going, government is investing more than ever in industry consultation, and the procurement process itself is being opened up for all eyes to see. Increased public and government scrutiny, however, means that industry finds itself in uncharted territory, with communications expectations that far exceed those of days gone by.
While some defence companies have embraced the concept of engaging the public, many are falling desperately behind the curve – hiding behind the age-old belief that no news is good news. Admittedly, there are times when ‘flying under the radar’ is the best-case scenario, but more often than not, these times are offset by day-to-day communications opportunities that exist inside and outside of program pursuit.
Defence companies are no longer allotted the luxury of communicating solely with their primary customer, even if the term ‘customer’ is expanded to include all the government departments that own even a sliver of the procurement pie. If companies are betting that they can win large-scale defence procurement programs without public opinion on their side, they are taking a risk – one that does not fully account for how decision-makers are approaching these decisions today. For the current federal government, public opinion is king, and as a result, now, more than ever, industry is expected to communicate with the Canadian public and build public support (or neutralize opposition) for program decisions.
Since its election in 2006, this government has closely monitored public opinion. Simply put, it is always in election mode. If a decision, purchase or change does not have public support, regardless of its purpose, this government will turn its back to it. Some thought this approach would end with a majority government, but it hasn’t. And from now until 2015 – especially in light of recent procurement troubles, a tight fiscal environment, and a more challenging political landscape – the government’s focus on public opinion will likely only intensify.
This won’t be a problem for defence companies who consider themselves ‘plugged in’ and fully aware of the need to have a voice in the public domain. But those who still think a press release posted to a corporate website every few months is ‘communicating with the public’ won’t be so lucky. After all, moving from limited or negligible interaction with the general population to regular engagement is no small task – especially when you’re also trying to stay abreast of new communications platforms that change rapidly each and every month.
For those still in denial about whether the defence industry needs to join the communications movement – meaning those who still view broad-scale public communications as something reserved for consumer-centric, marketing-focused organizations – rest assured that many individuals in the industry, even those at the most senior level, have already done so.
Consider, for example, the use of Twitter: whether it’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (@pmharper), newly appointed Defence Minister Rob Nicholson (@HonRobNicholson) or Vice Admiral Mark Norman (@Comd_RCN) – direct and immediate communications via social media is becoming increasingly important.
In fact, we need look no further than to our British counterparts to see how drastically things are changing – @DefenceHQ, the Ministry of Defence’s Twitter handle, has become the official corporate news channel of the ministry – something that may have been inconceivable a few short years ago.
Defence companies need to rethink the way they engage the public and integrate communications into their pursuit strategies to prepare for the good, the bad and the ugly of large-scale procurement programs. If (some may say when) things go off the rails, it’s already too late to start thinking about communications, particularly with the ever-growing expectation around both transparency and immediacy. To avoid last minute public missteps and the possibility of setbacks in the procurement process, communications must be considered from the very beginning and at every major program or project milestone. Anything short of well-planned execution can be game-changing. Poorly executed public engagement or communications initiatives can turn the mere act of ‘informing the public’ into an exercise in preserving market share.
This is not to say that every defence company needs to leverage every social media tool in existence, but that communications must be a strategic consideration when approaching and building a pursuit strategy. The trend to communicate quickly and often is intensifying, which means communications and public engagement can no longer be viewed as an ‘add on.’ It needs to be well-planned, well-executed and intentional in nature.
Strategic communications is not a buffet of five or 10 tactics, it’s a state-of-mind – something that is and can be woven into a company’s corporate culture, but there’s no magic potion, or ‘one size fits all’ option when it comes to communicating. There are, however, a number of important principles those in the defence industry should consider when approaching communications:
1. Respect your audience: All too often, especially when it comes to defence procurement, transparency is an afterthought. When this is the case (intentional or not), the general public lacks the critical details that make up the essence of a company’s offering. This ‘communicate on a need-to-know basis’ approach inevitably backfires and becomes an exercise in crisis communications – leaving the public suspicious and nothing short of insulted. It is important to respect your audience’s ability to digest tough, complex concepts, even if military requirements is not its area of expertise. With good planning, it is possible to communicate the key concepts of any program in a meaningful way. It’s easier to engage and share more information, acknowledging the challenges, than to ask forgiveness for not sharing enough.
2. Integrate communications into your overall corporate strategy: It is much easier to develop and deploy communications plans for specific programs when communications is integrated into a company’s overall corporate strategy. When employees and external consultants are privy to the bigger picture, they will have more success when developing smaller-scale outreach plans. Often, defence companies start from scratch each time they decide to bid on a specific project, building communications plans that are completely independent of those being deployed by their colleagues on the other side of the office. While this ‘one off’ approach can work, communications is much more effective if every initiative is integrated and guided by the same communications framework – serving to advance the larger and longer-term corporate objectives.
3. Communications is a two-way street: Once upon a time, communications was a one-way channel – an opportunity to pump information out and inform an audience. Those days are over. The public expects more. To communicate now means to engage in conversation, or at the very least to pump information out, while providing an avenue for others to respond. People love to provide their input and, better yet, they love to know someone is listening.
4. Go to your audience: With so many different communications channels out there, reaching your desired audience can seem overly complicated. Often, companies will respond to this complication by neglecting to communicate at all or by attempting to use all channels and spreading their resources thin. This is unnecessary. Through the use of measureable marketing services and, more specifically, the application of new technology, big data and digital, it is possible to reach even the most niche of communities – focusing only on those with a vested interest in a topic or issue.
Companies that do not communicate with the public are seen to be side-stepping their corporate responsibility to be open, transparent and publically invested organizations; they are also reducing their chances of success in public-facing pursuits. Not to mention, today’s new reality of transparency and public engagement is unlikely to ever revert to the closed procurement processes of yesterday, which is why those in the defence industry should be motivated by the opportunities now available via communications to inform and educate a public whose support – and vote – can be leveraged with key decision makers and end customers.
Leigha Cotton is an account director with Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Ottawa.