To mark Valentines Day this year, the Royal Navy put out a small number of press releases showing how some deployed ships like HMS DARING had tried to mark the occasion. For instance, there was a picture of the crew on the flight deck, spelling out an ‘I love you’ message (news release is HERE). This particular story got quite a lot of media attention in the UK press, with a variety of outlets carrying it and giving coverage to the story. But, it also had its detractors – the superb website ‘Think Defence’ did not appreciate the story, feeling that it perhaps didn't reflect the RN in a truly professional manner – their views can be found HERE. The view expressed was essentially that in pushing across a human interest story, the RN was not demonstrating itself to be as professional as its peers in other navies, who perhaps did not feel the need to provide equivalent stories.
This debate perhaps goes to the heart of the question about how we can push the case for Defence in the modern UK. To the authors mind, the issue is that what specialists consider of interest ,and what the wider public consider of interest is two very different, and often arguably mutually incompatible subjects. Wander into any UK major newsagent and you will come across rack after rack of deeply specialist magazines, often providing immensely technical commentary on the most niche of subjects, ranging from transportation through to outdoor model railways and agricultural vehicles (a favourite story of the author is of when serving in Iraq seeing a friend open a morale package to receive a magazine about tractors, whose review of the novel ‘ a short history of tractors in Ukrainian’ complained that while a good read, it would have benefited from far more detail about the tractors). All of these magazines have one thing in common – they write technical articles for a technically minded audience which gets much of the underpinning issues. There are letters pages and articles full of debates on the most minor of points, quite literally arguing over the location of a decimal place or widget. There is an incredible passion and intensity to these debates, but the fact remains that the subject matter remains a deeply niche and specialist interest.
|'The Love Boat' (HMS DARING)|
Arguably Defence is in a similar position to this – it is an organisation full of technical equipment, and engages in all manner of activities which people can take either an immensely superficial view, or spend many years becoming world class experts in. The problem is how to meet the interests of the experts, without losing the interest of the wider audience, who may have little to no idea of what the MOD really does all day. To an interested audience which inherently understands the importance of things like why the deployment of HMS DARING to the Far East was important, and why it achieved a tremendous amount of good for the RN, this sort of press release may well seem embarrassing – after all, who wants to see pictures of sailors missing their families when we could see press releases issued discussing whether there is sufficient space in the T45 hull to adopt a Mk141 launcher for VLS TLAM behind the PAAMS launcher but only if CEC were put onboard and the 114mm gun were downgraded to a 76mm OTO Melara – a complete exaggeration, but indicative of the sort of immensely technical debate which can be found in certain parts of the internet or specialist magazines.
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of the population in the UK have very little understanding of, or interest in, the technical minutiae which make up the way that the military works. They are proud of what the Armed Forces have done in the past (particularly when Grandad was in the Army in WW2), and they quite like the odd film footage of soldiers marching or steely warships at sea in a gale. It makes them proud to be British and proud of what the MOD can do – but at the same time, this pride does not necessarily translate into an understanding of what we actually DO with this equipment. This is backed up by a UK media which has little real interest in running repetitive stories about the same thing – had the press release not gone out on Valentines Day, and instead something like ‘RN Warship sails for home, just another day at sea’, then the chances are that absolutely no one would have carried it in their newspapers or print media.
As it is, when read it is actually a really good way of imparting a lot of information about what HMS DARING has been up to for quite some time, and is put across in a way that the average member of the public will want to read. The press release on the Royal Navy website talks about the deployment the vessel has done, reminding the public that the ship has deployed globally, that she has played an enormous part in disaster relief in the Philippines that she has travelled the world and been away from home for 9 months. It really flags up the capability of the modern RN, and the flexibility required of its people and vessels when they deploy, and helps remind people of the enormous human cost involved in this – particularly the separation, the challenges on people’s relationships and the human impact of a major deployment. At a time of the year when many people reflect on their loved ones, it is a very good way of informing about what the RN is up to right now, in a way which reflects well on the Navy.
The article got a lot of coverage, for instance a very good and positive account in the Daily Mail - HERE (which will doubtless run an article soon though asking ‘can serving on a Type 45 cause you cancer?), and a multitude of other UK and wider news organisations also carried it. In other words, for the sake of a fairly simple picture, the RN was able to get really widespread media coverage of what it is doing right now with one of its warships, and help reinforce wider messages about its capability and operational pattern. Yes, this sort of article doesn't appeal to the average deep specialist with an interest in Defence – its simplistic, it doesn't talk in depth about equipment and it doesn't really go into details, but that’s irrelevant because the sort of deep specialist who gets what Defence is doing is arguably not really the target audience.
The target audience today is a UK population indifferent to Defence, and which associates the Army with failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with bloody battles and bodies coming home to Wooten Basset. It sees defence as something which goes on in the background and where expenditure is broadly a good thing, but it does seem a lot of money to spend on not very much, and besides, we don’t have a navy any more after all these cuts, so why bother doing defence spending at all? And, if there are all these cuts, then why bother joining or recruiting into the forces? All of this sounds simplistic, but it accurately reflects conversations Humphrey has had with often highly intelligent well educated friends who simply don’t understand or appreciate what the MOD is getting up to day in and day out.
Couple this indifference to a media which is often reluctant to run stories without a human interest factor, and you realise that its actually extremely difficult to get the press to run positive ‘good news’ stories on the MOD which talk about how much the armed forces do, and how busy they are. By anchoring a story to a good ‘fluffy human touch’ story, the chances are that the press will cover it, and with a well written press release, they’ll give the ability to not only give the British public a nice news story, but also educate them in a small way about what the Royal Navy is doing right now.
The irony is that at a time when information and news cover is more accessible than ever before, the public understanding of what the MOD does remains far lower than it has done for many years, due in part to smaller armed forces and fewer military bases meaning that many in the UK will go for years without ever actually meeting a member of the military. The challenge is to try and put the information across in a way which makes the public realise and appreciate the case for a strong level of defence expenditure, and to support ongoing operations. As we move to a post HERRICK world, it is inevitable that the activities of the armed forces are going to drop out of the media's focus, and the average member of the public will not see much about what is going on. To address this, it seems eminently sensible to come up with the sort of press release that media organisations want to carry, and which helps get the MOD message across. If this means accepting that it upsets specialists, or that it doesn't seem terribly ‘professional’ (whatever that means) then so be it. But if this gets the message to the public, and it if helps them understand why Defence is a good thing, and not an indifferent issue, then that’s worth it. More importantly, if that article yesterday helped spark a little fire of imagination in potential recruits who read it, saw what the RN does and suddenly thought ‘I want to find out more’ then is that really a bad thing? Lets be honest here, the chances are that if that press release hadn't gone out yesterday then there would have been no coverage of RN activities beyond flooding relief, which while vital is not something which really shows the justification for a global navy. One only has to look at the dozens of press releases issued on the RN website to see that a lot of them are interesting and informative to specialist publications, but are never picked up by the mainstream media. So, what is worse – a slightly schmaltzy article which gets lots of media coverage and lets people know what HMS DARING has done, or no coverage at all beyond the specialist areas which already know what she has done?
Frankly Humphrey is firmly in the ‘better to get some good coverage than no coverage’ camp – yes it doesn't appeal to everyone, but it does feel like what is being shown helps show the RN off to those people who really matter – the bulk of UK taxpayers.