This past week Propublica released two in-depth and well written stories on the at-sea collisions involving USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain in 2017...ripping open old wounds and reaching new audiences not familiar with the accident details, as well as addressing lingering questions and progress made over the last two years. Here are the four things the Navy should do in the wake of these stories:
Commit to playing offense instead of defense when you get contentious questions or queries. There are important facts and context absent from these stories...not because the reporters didn’t ask or give a chance for comment, but because the Navy didn’t share its story. Not actively participating in these types of stories is a missed opportunity.
Find new opportunities to tell your story..until it sticks. The Navy should immediately reach out to the media and again explain the work done over the last two years...encourage anyone who disagrees to come forward and be part of the debate. Although late and on the heels of lives lost, the Navy has put significant time, effort and expertise into addressing the systemic problems identified in the Fitzgerald and McCain investigations. Chains of command have been modified, budgets have been better prioritized, commanding officers have greater empowerment and most importantly, the public has been made aware of the dangers of being complacent at sea. Without this “out-in-the-open” scrutiny, progress will not continue and trust and confidence will not be restored.
Burn the lessons learned into the minds of every member of the team. In this specific case, ensure whether E-1 or Service Secretary is aware of the damage done. Make it clear that if you stand a poor watch, if you cut corners, if you don’t say something when you see something out of place, bad things will happen. Further make it clear, if leadership takes their eye off the ball, focuses on niche and boutique efforts to cement personal legacies, or political expediency is chosen, people will die.
Tell the your story at every opportunity...find ways to use negative publicity to your advantage. The Navy needs to turn the lemons of a poor story into the lemonade of brand awareness. Use this opportunity to reach out to the American people...make it clear what the Navy does, why it must be bigger and more capable and what happens to the nation’s seapower and to national security if the Navy becomes second rate. When it came time for President Harry S.Truman to build support for a burgeoning Cold War, he went out and scared the hell out of the American people. Perhaps scaring the citizenry is a step too far, but political and uniformed leaders ought to make it crystal clear what it means for Americans in Cleveland, Chicago, and Columbus if freedom of the seas goes the way of the dodo. The threats from Russia and China are real and our country men and women need to understand how our Navy keeps us safe.
The Navy should be thankful for the light shone by Propublica. Embellishments and elements of revisionist history aside, these articles help draw the attention of a larger American audience to naval issues. In a time of investigations, shutdowns and hyperbole important national security questions are sometimes lost in the noise. Hopefully, Navy leadership can capitalize on the inertia created and continue to shine a light on the problems and successes of our Navy.