VIRGINIA BEACH -- In a hotel lobby at Town Center, Michael Ivey set up his personal laptop computer and did something no other American sailor has done before.
He logged onto the news and discussion website Reddit and took over the Navy's official recruiting account to take part in an "AMA," which stands for Ask Me Anything. But his job isn't as a recruiter or a public affairs officer who is expected to put forward the best face possible for the Navy.
He's an equipment operator -- a Navy Seabee -- stationed at Little Creek whose job it is to make sure sailors in the rest of the fleet who are deployed have a roof over their heads, running water and communication lines.
Without anyone looking over his shoulder or approving his posts, Ivey answered questions in real time for two hours about his background, about life in the Navy and even things he dislikes about the service. He didn't try to duck a question about his views on allowing transgender sailors to serve.
"My entire intent of this was not to be the voice of the Navy but to the be the voice of Michael," Ivey said. "If you cherry-pick questions that you want to answer, then it becomes very obvious that you're trying to push a narrative. I wanted this to be as organic as possible. So with that, you have to answer the hard questions, you have to answer the silly questions; whether I like pineapple pizza or how I feel about the transgender ban."
Wednesday's unusual session was part of a broader shift in the Navy's recruiting strategy that focuses less on reaching young people through television advertisements and more on connecting with them online through the authentic stories of sailors in the fleet. The Navy has gone from spending about 70 percent of its $40 million media budget on broadcast in the 2017 fiscal year to 45 percent in the 2018 fiscal year. The Navy plans to spend 70 percent of its media budget on digital in the 2019 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
"It is important to note that the current marketing campaign is the most cost-efficient in Navy history. That is because the majority of the paid advertising is appearing on the digital and social media platforms that are most popular with the Centennial generation," said Lt. Cmdr. Jessica L. McNulty, a Navy Recruiting Command spokeswoman.
"This media strategy shift is helping ensure that the Navy is reaching the right audience, at the right time, on the most appropriate media platforms to maximize impact. And the increased emphasis on digital and social media marketing is enabling the Navy to more precisely measure the campaign's effectiveness and then adjust accordingly."
The Navy's Memphis-based civilian marketing group, the Navy Partnership, calls the shift a complete "digital transformation" and is relying on sailors like Ivey to play starring roles.
"The Navy does not have an awareness problem. Everybody knows the Navy. But what the Navy has is a knowledge problem," said Leslie Skelton, channel director at the Navy Partnership. "Most people don't know what the Navy does. They don't know the opportunities that the Navy can provide an individual or a family. With digital, it allows us to go deeper than just a print ad or a billboard or a TV spot. We're allowed to engage in real-time conversations with people."
Not once did Ivey ask a Navy recruiter or a public affairs officer who were sitting nearby for permission or advice on what to say. They primarily sat silently and laughed at some of his humorous responses while watching the exchange on their personal laptops because the Navy doesn't allow Reddit on government computers.
"Whew," Ivey exhaled after naming several things about the Navy he didn't like and noting that transgender sailors don't encroach on his happiness or cause him harm. "All this time at (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) is paying off at disarming things."
Ivey was chosen for the Reddit experience after he was featured in a mini-recruiting documentary called "Faces of the Fleet" that has racked up nearly 1 million views on YouTube over the past few months.
He loves his job and said he participated in the video so more people could learn about it.
"When you think of the Navy, you think of the guys that are on ships, you think of the Navy SEALs, you think of submarines. They make movies about that stuff," Ivey said in an interview. "We are a very small community in the Navy. They call us dirt sailors or sand quids. And most people, unless they've worked with us before, have absolutely no idea who we are, so it was an opportunity to kind of bring that limelight just for a little bit to who the Seabees are and what we do."
Ivey's story is compelling : He grew up on a sweet potato farm in rural Dunn, N.C. He's proud of his farming heritage but said he wanted an opportunity to make a difference that would also take him away from the sleepy town near I-95 about 25 miles north of Fayetteville.
"My life was a very limited collage. Sitting in the parking lot with a couple of buddies. Coming home and working on a fence. If the cows got out, that was the highlight of the week because it was the one thing that was spontaneous," Ivey said in the video. "I've built forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Building hospital waiting areas in Jamaica. What became far more important than kicking down doors was doing things that enabled people to be safe."
Ivey already was active on Reddit at the time the video went live, and the site helped propel its spread. He's a fan of puns and so-called dad jokes. It's clear the voice he writes in is his own, which he hopes comes through as authentic.
"My intention of this was not to try to get people to join the Navy or sway them to join the Seabees specifically," he said. "But if I could get to one kid out of nowhere, Nebraska, who just feels like he's stuck in the ruts, going in circles for the rest of his life and give him an idea that, 'Hey, maybe I could do this and get out,' introduce him to an opportunity that he's never contemplated, then that to me is worth it."
His closing message to the tens of thousands of people who had already viewed his discussion as it happened was similar:
"There is nothing wrong with living on a sweet potato farm in the middle of nowhere if that is what makes you happy and completes you as a person, but for me I needed something more. The Navy gave me that chance, and my only regret thus far is that I did not dive onto that opportunity sooner. It is my personal belief that each of us is guilty of all the good we have never done. The Navy simply allowed me to do more."
This article is written by Brock Vergakis from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.