West Point Masters the Art of Strategic Communications

Guest post by Anam Khan of Columbia University.

This is a guest post by Anam Khan, an MS Communications candidate at Columbia University.

On Aug. 20, 2015, West Point, an esteemed military academy, took the notion of pillow fights to a whole different level. This jovial activity originally meant to build camaraderie suddenly descended into anarchy at an establishment that prides itself in training the U.S Army’s top officers.

This mass pillow fight on campus is reportedly meant to give first year students an opportunity to “blow off steam” after a grueling summer of basic training. Basic training is formally known as boot camp, an experience that aims to transform civilians into soldiers. Over a period of approximately six-and-a-half weeks, West Point trainees are pushed beyond their limits as they power through excruciating drills also referred to as “Beast Barracks.”

In addition to the bodily damage that occurred, West Point also has to deal with the onset of a public relations dilemma. So far, it appears as if an institution designed to instill discipline is capable of producing students who feel no shame in mauling each other with pillows. The academy is also publicly funded, which means that people could be asking themselves why money is being set aside to support potential army recruits who not only lack sound judgment, but are also willing to harm their fellow students. Did West Point address its current predicament with a strategic communications approach, or was it unprepared to defend its reputation in the wake of a rather embarrassing turn of events?

Around 30 members of the class of 2019 required medical attention by the end of this confrontation, and 24 suffered concussions. Some reports claim that the pillows contained more than just feathers and fluff. This year, students were ordered to wear helmets. These helmets, however, were apparently stuffed into some pillowcases as well. Many of the hairline fractures and dislocated shoulders were probably a result of helmets being swung with the sturdiness and force of a baseball bat.

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. commented on the fight, saying:

“While these spirit events do occur, we never condone any activity that results in intentional harm to a teammate. Although the vast majority of the class appears to have maintained the spirit of the event; it is apparent that a few did not. A military police investigation that began the night of the incident is ongoing. I assure you that the chain of command will take appropriate action when the investigation is complete.”

He took full responsibility and added the following statement:

“We remain committed to the development of leaders of character. We will continue our investigation, ensure accountability, and reinforce with the Corps that we must all take care of our teammates.”

Based on Caslen’s comments, it appears as if he’s already covered three important steps when it comes to tackling a public relations crisis.

  • He acknowledged the inappropriate nature of the event that unfolded,
  • He took full responsibility as a representative of West Point
  • He reassured the public that leading administrators will take necessary action in response to the problematic incident that occurred.

After accepting that a mistake was made, Caslen managed to apologize without really saying, “I’m sorry.”

Instead of simply issuing a remorseful plea for forgiveness and incessantly reassuring the public that West Point students will conduct themselves in an exemplary manner going forward, he actually used this as an opportunity to shed light on the academy’s internal value system. He reminded us that West Point is committed to “the development of leaders of character.” In addition, he emphasized that students are trained to act like a team and look after one another. He also made it a point to mention the other students who “maintained the spirit of the event” in order to clarify that West Point’s cadets generally abide by strongly enforced rules and regulations. His remarks tactfully drive home the idea that a few negative examples should not stand as overarching representations of the student body.

It appears as if Caslen was prepared to help West Point redeem itself.  He made a conscious effort to reaffirm the academy’s mission, which centers on cultivating exemplary discipline, comradeship, and strength of character. Even though the U.S. Army is still investigating the brawl, Caslen approached the public with a clear idea of how to defend West Point’s reputation as an institution that enforces a strictly controlled culture.