On this anniversary of 9/11 I thought I would reflect on some of my experiences from Afghanistan and how we used professional skills I learned in the civilian world to address communication challenges abroad.
As a member of the Army Reserve, I deployed in the spring of 2012 as an intelligence officer. Assigned to a multifunctional engineering brigade, we had orders to assume responsibility for all engineering assets in Afghanistan. While I had anticipated many realities that awaited me (for example, the relentless heat) what I hadn’t expected was an opportunity to call upon my advertising experience.
Our leadership team quickly discovered that one of our most difficult tasks would be proper communication. Our mission was new and not well understood by most units on the ground. We were to direct all engineering missions in Afghanistan, from construction, to route clearance (removing bombs from roads) and finally, to training and preparing Afghanistan’s own engineering corps. We had to ensure our force was both adequately supplied and properly supported throughout the country by the chain of command. In short, ensuring battlefield commanders knew who we were and what we could provide to them.
To help us get the word out in the most efficient way possible, we assembled a working group that included folks with professional, communications or marketing backgrounds and combined them with soldiers from our Public Affairs team. Working quickly, we identified three key stakeholder categories to whom we would tailor our messaging and delivery tactics:
- The ‘Influencers’ – audience groups that could provide assistance to our brigade and its mission
- The ‘Customers’ – any audience group relying on us for support
- The ‘Partners’ – Afghan audience groups impacted through either our mission or our presence
Influencers were any organization or individual that could help us, either by providing us with supplies or spreading the word of our accomplishments back home. As the only engineer brigade then-currently deployed in the army, we had a lot of attention on us. Policy makers were looking for us to provide updates on what the role of the engineer would become and how best to prepare soldiers in training back home. We had a responsibility to quickly and efficiently share our progress and our setbacks with many groups; families, policy makers, think-tanks, and other commanders stateside.
To do this, we created both a printed and electronic newsletter and took the innovative step – for an Army unit – of creating a Facebook page where we could quickly pass along information and news about achievements. Our content strategy featured a mix of both lifestyle and military content, highlighting individual soldiers each month while providing a near real-time forum for families to interact with brigade leadership. While operating the page was tedious – our intel team had to be sure no sensitive information was released there – the benefits were far worth the time and effort.
Through our newsletters and included case studies communicated home, we convinced policymakers to modify how the Army conducted engineering training throughout the United States to better prepare Soldiers for what awaited them on the battlefield.
We classified customers as anyone who relied on our brigade for support, from the American infantry unit or the German artillery unit requesting engineers, to our own engineer units requesting supplies or information from us.
Surprisingly, we discovered that battlefield commanders struggled with how best to use the engineers. Now that we were the single commanding authority, we immediately launched an in-country communications campaign employing e-mail outreach, cold-calling, in-person meetings and custom-printed newsletters that were translated for all of our coalition partners. Much of our time was spent identifying the right targeting lists to use for each form of media (sound familiar?) In the end, we raised awareness of our brigade and the capabilities we could bring to the fight and watched as our request rate jumped 60%, pushing our utilization rate to exceed 100%, which brought about its own communication challenge.
Once we established the right relationships we could then set about communicating best practice policies and standards for how, where, and when an engineering unit should be requested on the battlefield. This produced two very real and tangible benefits; first, battlefield commanders enjoyed better engineering support, and second, our engineer units received only those requests thoroughly vetted by the brigade which better protected their safety while maximizing their efficiency.
Our partners were the people of Afghanistan. One of the most important parts of our mission focused on training and preparing the Afghan engineering corps. We realized early on that this was one of the more compelling components of our narrative and one that needed to be heard most importantly by the Afghan people.
Unfortunately, few Afghans have land-line telephones and even fewer are literate. Instead, the radio remains the primary source of news followed closely by TV. Most surprisingly, cell phones have become the most rapidly-adopted communication method in Afghanistan. While these are not the 4G smartphones that we all know in the U.S., many Afghans rely on them as their primary method for communication, as well as for banking. As such, we devised a media strategy that worked to provide messages highlighting successful projects and operations through local radio and even SMS messaging in order to showcase how our partnership benefited villages and regions in which we operated.
Our brigade certainly couldn’t implement everything we wanted to in the short time that we had. However, we delivered a list of recommendations to our successors to build off of the relationship tactics that we employed, including Afghan media partners. The media planning process was eerily similar to the process we use in the U.S. Through everything, we tried to follow these basic requirements – ensuring the right message reached the right audience at the right time.
Oliver Nelson is currently the Associate Media Director, eDR across several healthcare, pharmaceutical and OTC categories with a focus on digital display, social media, search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). Oliver Nelson is also a captain for the United States Army Reserve in the military intelligence corps. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom with the 411th Engineer Brigade based in New Windsor, NY serving as the brigade intelligence officer.