A formation of U.S. Navy Blue Angel fighter jets perform a flyover above graduating midshipmen during the May 29 U.S. Naval Academy graduation and commissioning ceremonies in Annapolis, Md. / The Associated Press
The Associated Press
NORFOLK — The Navy is targeting the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations with a public relations campaign to help reconnect Americans with the importance of their naval service after recent surveys have shown other branches of the military are seen as more important to national defense.
After a decade of war in landlocked countries, the Navy has been frustrated with its inability to effectively convey its message that its ships are an active war fighting force that have been involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as serving as a deterrent in other regions around the globe.
In June 2011, a national Gallup survey showed that the Navy ranked fourth — just ahead of the Coast Guard — in terms of prestige and importance to national defense. That survey was taken after the high-profile killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs.
The image problem can affect recruiting as well as the Navy’s ability to secure funding when it competes with other branches that may have broader support from the public.
The Navy is choosing the War of 1812 for a major public outreach campaign because its victory over the mighty British fleet in what is often called the “second war for independence” marked the dawn of U.S. naval power.
Among other things, the war was sparked by British attempts to restrict U.S. trade. The Navy likes to remind people that today 90 percent of international trade travels via the sea and that its ships protect shipping lanes from hostile countries as well as modern-day pirates.
“The same tenets of 1812 apply to today and we’re using this opportunity to get that message out so the people our country know when they invest in our Navy that it’s for good reason and good cause,” said Rear Adm. Herman Shelanski, commander of the Norfolk-based Carrier Strike Group 10.
In a January message to sailors around the world, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert noted that Navy sailors make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population and that citizens are less likely to have personal connections with sailors than they were in the past. The Navy also has difficulty communicating its message in the American heartland away from its fleet concentrations on the East and West coasts.
“While Americans like and appreciate the importance of their Navy, they do not truly understand the Navy’s mission and its importance,” Greenert wrote. “In 2012, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 provides a powerful platform from which to launch an informative outreach campaign.”
The Navy has spent several years preparing for the bicentennial celebration, which will last through 2015. Major celebrations have already taken place in New Orleans and New York. More are to come in Baltimore, Boston and in cities along the Great Lakes. The Navy has launched a website dedicated to the bicentennial celebration, including a video narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss, and has a bicentennial social media campaign as well.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” Adm. John Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, said last fall in announcing that the Blue Angels would perform in Virginia as part of the commemoration ceremonies. “The Navy is all in on this event.”
On Friday, an international armada of tall ships sailed into Norfolk for a bicentennial celebration and a narrator outlined the history of the War of 1812 over loudspeakers to thousands in attendance. The parade of ships was broadcast live on local television stations which pointed out the war’s history and the Navy’s importance of it.
Actors in period costumes mingled with onlookers in shorts and sunglasses along the waterfront as tall ships floated near modern Navy ships and warplanes roared overhead. Just as with its Fleet Week celebrations around the country, the Navy ships are being opened up for public tours. In non-coastal cities, the Navy launched a new program this year to match 50 senior officer, civilian and enlisted leaders with 50 cities across the country for several days of high-level talks with leaders in those areas, in part, to generate media coverage.
Even in Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, the Navy feels it can make progress in explaining its mission.
“Even though it’s a hometown game,” Shelanski said, “I think we’re still gaining as much ground in educating the citizens here about who we are and what we do as much as New York, Boston or Baltimore, which don’t have a continuous naval presence.”