With our nation’s military wrapping up two wars, there has been a great deal of ink and conversation about the state of our country’s veterans, who have sacrificed life and limb in the service of national defense.
The topic can be a minefield for the best-intentioned individuals, particularly those in public relations trying to communicate to, or about, veterans without offending or patronizing them.
To cut to the moral of the story: You don’t want to be the person who is accused of exploiting veterans, intentionally or unintentionally, for profit and publicity.
Most communications errors regarding veterans occur because PR professionals don’t think about or fully understand the population they are targeting. As a Navy reservist and founder of a fledgling non-profit focused on veteran entrepreneurs, I’ve had the opportunity in recent years to discuss this topic with amazing people from around the country who live, eat, and breathe veterans’ services.
I’ve learned a great deal and even dispelled some misconceptions of my own over time. With Veterans Day this Sunday, here are five crucial lessons about veterans for PR professionals:
They are not broken.
You’ve read the headlines. Suicide rates are up. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicts hundreds of thousands. Young veterans are unemployed. It’s all true, but all misleading if taken as a representation of the general state of the veteran population.
There are nearly 22 million veterans in the U.S., only 2.4 million of them have served since 9/11. That means that nearly 19 million veterans served in previous periods and are generally not in the news. These men and women help drive our economy. They run our companies. They are not broken, and our newer veterans are joining their ranks. But the everyday successes and reintegration of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don’t create exciting copy for reporters.
Before you make assumptions, dig deeper into the facts behind the headlines. By focusing on just the wounded and afflicted, you ignore the millions who are thriving.
They are not homogenous.
The American military celebrates diversity amongst its ranks. This happens not because the military wants to be a leader in social causes, but because service chiefs recognize that our nation is diverse and that Americans don’t serve as effectively in a one-size-fits-all organization.
The same applies for veterans, who run the gamut of American identity, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. They shouldn’t be simplified for communications purposes. There isn't a single kind of veteran; there isn't a single publication that reaches them; and there isn't a single message that reaches all of them.
They are not (all) Rambo.
Most veterans never served in a combat role; the vast majority of service members provide support for the tip of the spear that the military thrusts into harm’s way.
Like legal professionals, who only go to trial in one percent of cases, most veterans spent their careers performing the administrative, logistical, and operational tasks necessary to keep a massive organization running.
Stop thinking of them solely as gun-wielding macho men (and women) and think of them like you would the workforce of a multinational corporation. Don’t think that you can speak the language of a front-line combat infantryman and make a connection with every veteran.
They are public servants.
Just like police officers, fire fighters, and even, dare I say, politicians, veterans chose a path of public service that may have meant fewer rewards, a more challenging life, and less recognition on a daily basis. But their willingness to serve on behalf of the greater good should never be forgotten or ignored, even if they themselves will often just say that they were doing their job. It was surely one hell of a job. Tapping into that sense of service is crucial to reaching and engaging many veterans.
They need a hand, not a handout.
Veterans can face challenges that require special solutions. They may have been mentally or physically injured. They may have had trouble finding a job because of constant deployments. They may have held a position in the military that doesn’t translate well to the civilian workforce. But these men and women who served aren’t asking to become dependents of the state. They just want what they are owed—retirement pay, health care, counseling, and understanding. What they want and need is a hand up, not a hand out.
Veterans are not a fragile population that needs to be approached with kid gloves. They are people who did their job and hope that they will be recognized for their efforts and supported after their sacrifices. They have families. They are our friends and neighbors.
While there are many who have suffered, they are the headline of the story; it is important to dig deeper and become better informed about what the entire, complex population looks like if you want to communicate with them. Keep that in mind—as you would when trying to communicate to mothers, teachers, punk rock devotees or any other national “population”—and you will avoid the most egregious errors.
Happy Veterans Day.
Brian Wagner is a senior manager at Gibraltar Associates, an Inc. 5000-ranked independent public relations firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. He is also a Navy Reserve officer and founder of a veterans non-profit. Follow him on Twitter @BrianBWagner. This post was originally published on the Gibraltar Associates blog.