The Navy, Sonar, and Whales

The U.S. Navy submarine force publishes a daily clipping service called “Undersea Enterprise News Daily.” Lately it has been clipping a lot of articles about the legal battles against low frequency sonar off of the California coast.

What is surprising to me is that they are frequently including articles such as this one (linked in the March 29 issue) from a web site called “Strategy Page.” The Strategy Page isn’t a newspaper. It is more of a military enthusiasts site with plenty of pro military (“dissenters don’t deserve their freedom”) rhetoric. On the one occasion I saw someone dare to post a comment in favor of caution on behalf of the whales or their environment the commentor was immediately shouted down. This web site does not represent broad public opinion and I doubt that it is widely read; I’m baffled as to why the Navy would give it equal weight with the major news outlets that are covering this topic given that the purpose of a clipping service is to circulate news that is representative of, or is widely influencing, public opinion.

There is such a better way to approach this. It seems to me that the Navy should supplement its (defensively oriented) public affairs office in this case and figure out how to work this issue a lot better. Even WalMart brings in Edelman and starts up a war room when it starts getting it its butt handed to it in the press; and now its green initiatives are starting pay dividends in public opinion (paid bloggers, secret tapes of reporters, and other mis-steps notwithstanding).

Or, maybe take a page from the McNeil Tylanol scare and actively and openly engage the public in a postive and trust enhancing manner. Conduct highly visible demonstrations of the safeguards being taken to preserve the natural habitat at the same time that we are actively training to protect our carriers. Create working groups of concerned scientists and citizens to create and implement better approaches to protecting wildlife while maintaining the highest standards of training and readiness. Recognize that training must fit into the framework of values of the citizenry of the country you are commissoned to protect. Invite the most vocal critics to come on board ship to see the safeguards being taken first hand, and to meet the sailors being trained in order to put faces behind the issues. Conduct your own press campaign to ensure that the Navy’s side of the story, and the reasons that the training is so necessary, are getting out and impacting public opinion. In short, do the right thing and then proactively engage the critics to eliminate defensiveness and create a greater sense of trust between the public and the Navy on this and other issues.

Linking to narrow-cast viewpoints of the situation in order to give the internal Navy audience a sense of relief from the constant harangue of external viewpoints only works to reinforce an internal “they don’t get it and don’t deserve what we do for them” perspective and defensive posture. Elevating these same viewpoints to “indicator of public opinion” and widely distributing them within the Navy only increases the suspicion on the part of the public that the Navy has an insular perspective and can’t be trusted to do the right thing on an issue important to the public it serves.

I fully support the Navy’s need for long range submarine detection for the safety of our carrier battle groups around the world. Given the strategic realities today, these capabilities are critical. I would love to see my old service unwind its defensive PA posture enough to actively engage with its critics (who are citizens after all) and arrive at a solution that protects the natural habititat while also protecting our carriers.


  1. Larry E. - April 9, 2007 @ 8:56 am

    So – did you post your opinion or this blog on the aforementioned narrow-band website?

  2. Jim S. - April 9, 2007 @ 9:37 am

    Larry, I wanted to but didn’t because the site only permits registered members to comment.

    My point isn’t to criticize that website though, they are certainly entitled to their opinion. My point is that the Navy (and the citizens it protects) would be better served by engaging proactively with its critics rather than justifying its positions by focusing on a special interest site that agrees with it’s position.

    McNeil changed the way businesses think about PR with the way they handled the Tylenol scare. The Navy might take a page from that approach in this situation to everyone’s benefit.

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