Memo to the Marine Corps: Don't Pretend It's Just a PR Problem

Students with Infantry Training Battalion practice basic marksmanship techniques at Camp Geiger, N.C., Sept. 26, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Sgt. Tyler L. Main)
Students with Infantry Training Battalion practice basic marksmanship techniques at Camp Geiger, N.C., Sept. 26, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Sgt. Tyler L. Main)

Neal Urwitz is director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security, where Amy Schafer is a research associate in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program.

Following almost every crisis and scandal, the person, company or government entity responsible is tempted chalk it up as "just a PR problem."

"If only they knew the real us," they say, "they'd never think we were irresponsible or immoral. We just need to sell ourselves better."

The inclination is easy to understand -- PR problems are easier to solve than "real" ones. Yet that approach almost always makes matters worse. Take how Ferguson, Missouri hired a PR firm after the shooting of Michael Brown to talk about how the city was a great place to raise a family. It backfired, to say the least.

Facing the Marines United scandal, the Marine Corps is at the same crossroads. It must resist the temptation to treat this is as just a PR crisis. If it doesn't address the root issues, it won't just harm its operational and recruiting capabilities; it will, ironically, also lose the PR war.

Thus far, both the commandant and the sergeant major of the Marine Corps appear to be taking this incredibly seriously, but when the current news cycle passes, there will be pressure to return to the status quo.

As Leona Lansing said to Lucas Pruitt in HBO's "The Newsroom," "You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem."

That the Marine Corps has an "actual" problem should not be up for debate. This "scandal" is indicative of broader problems – and it's nothing new. According to the most recent RAND study on sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military, women in the Marine Corps are the most likely military demographic to experience any type of sexual assault.

Both Military Times and Task & Purpose reported as early as 2012 on the use of social media by Marines to harass and degrade women, both inside and outside the Corps. Each time, the Marine Corps salutes smartly and promises change, citing the Department of Defense's zero-tolerance policy, yet these order and discipline issues re-emerge.

As Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Gen. Robert Neller, "Why should we believe that it's going to be different this time?"

The difference must be that the Marine Corps takes this seriously as a problem within the Corps, and not a PR nightmare to be papered over.

Further, this is a strategic issue in addition to a moral issue, though the immorality of sharing nude photos of your "sisters in arms," shouldn't be lost on anyone. This could cause tremendous long-term damage to the Marine Corps' efforts to recruit women.

Neller has testified as to the increased strength women bring to the Marine Corps, setting recruitment goals to hit 10 percent female accessions -- a feat that will likely be unachievable in the wake of this scandal.

In recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called this "devastatingly bad" for the Corps' ability to recruit women, pressing both the commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps on whether they could in good faith tell a daughter to join the service right now.

If the Corps doesn't handle the underlying issues, it will get hammered when a similar scandal inevitably breaks, losing the PR war and yet again breaking faith with the women Neller is asking to trust him.

It will not be able to rely on the crisis communications playbook, which is to point to all of your efforts to combat the problem and show the world that you take the issue even more seriously than they do. Rather, it will face damning questions such as, "Why have you still not addressed this issue?" and "Why did something as awful as Marines sharing naked pictures of their brethren not spur you to action?"

Such questions, of course, would put the Corps in a no-win situation.

This isn't to say that the Marine Corps shouldn't pursue a PR reclamation project in addition to its efforts to address underlying issues. It should absolutely let Congress, the media and the public know about its efforts to fix the problem by taking proactive steps to counteract the command climate and culture in which these issues arose.

This must begin with real change -- strongly considering the integration of basic recruit training, retraining current members of the Corps on acceptable language and behavior toward women, and aggressively punishing Marines who continue to perpetuate these attitudes.

The cornerstone of any efforts will be punishing the guilty and holding commanding officers accountable in the wake of this and similar scandals. That is the only way the Corps can reassure the women it wants to recruit that it will be a place where talent and service is valued more than gender.

If Marine Corps leadership, however, wraps itself in the comfortable belief that all it needs to do is communicate better, it will make the problem far worse. It will fail in its mission.

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