Five Ways Defense Subcontractors Can Remain Relevant in the Sequestration Era
Not since the aftermath of World War II has the U.S. defense industry seen such a precipitous shrinking of its marketplace. In the years following 9/11, dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a worldwide effort to curb terrorism essentially amounted to a full employment contract for those companies that support U.S. foreign policy objectives at home and abroad. Here in 2012, those wars aren’t just winding down; they are doing so at a time when budget deficits have reached crisis proportions and introduced the very real possibility of sequestration across the federal government.
Already, we’ve seen proposals put forth by Congress and White House that would slash core Department of Defense (DoD) spending by as much as $5.2 billion. Unfortunately, even that figure falls well short of the cuts called for in 2011’s Budget Control Act (BCA), which requires Congress to identify $1.2 trillion in federal deficit reductions over the next ten years. If Congress fails to pass a FY2013 budget in line with the BCA (an increasingly likely scenario in this polarized political environment), the worst case scenario kicks in as sequestration is triggered and DoD procurement is slashed by as much as $600 billion.
That’s bad news for defense contractors – and it’s even worse for the subcontractors at the mercy of their customers’ ability to win and maintain lucrative Pentagon procurement deals. All in all, as many as one million jobs have been estimated to be at risk.
How can defense subcontractors compete and remain relevant as critical national security priorities take a back seat to widespread calls for fiscal restraint?
In order to take advantage of the radical change in the marketplace, defense subcontractors need to think differently about their communications and marketing initiatives. Their brands matter more than ever – and as such, they need to expand their spheres of influence by engaging not only policy makers and primes, but the constituencies these audiences listen to as well.
To that end, here are five steps that will help defense subcontractors demonstrate value at time when nothing is more important to their future prospects.
1. Articulate your unique selling proposition.
Subcontractors exist because they can do something that primary contractors cannot. What is it that makes your company stand out and your services absolutely necessary to achieving mission objectives? Are you the top provider of cyber-security services? Do you excel in on-the-ground training? Perhaps most important, have you identified efficiencies that keep costs down?
When defense subcontractors infuse their business-to-business outreach efforts with specialization messages, they provide primes with reason to tell the Pentagon “we need these guys on board.” When the same messages are disseminated beyond the B2B audience, they condition procurement officials to agree with that assessment.
2. Tell your story in videos.
Defense contractors possess a unique communicative advantage in the Digital Age because their work produces such compelling image and video opportunities. Here, subcontractors can take a valuable cue from the very companies they need to reach. Northrup Grumman, for instance, maintains its own branded YouTube channel by which it highlights the ways its products and services protect and enrich the lives of brave servicemen and women. Northrup Grumman’s videos stand out not only because they are more engaging than the written word; but because Google and other search engines are putting more and more emphasis on pushing the spoken word.
Most important, the videos reach audiences on an emotional level – and whether the emotions conveyed are pride, security, or even fear, they drive buying decisions in ways that appeals to logic simply can’t.
3. Recruit influential allies.
When the companies that stand to lose money from defense cuts speak out about the dangers of sequestration, it’s one thing. When respected and relatively disinterested third parties do the same, the message is far more powerful. The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Center for American Progress have all voiced serious concerns about what deep cuts to the defense industry would mean to the national economy.
By teaming up with such a politically diverse and intellectually credible array of potential allies – and the similarly-aligned unions as well – defense subcontractors can help ensure that the jobs message rings out in and beyond Washington D.C. corridors of power.
4. Geo-target your efforts.
For maximum impact, defense subcontractors need to aim their communicative efforts at two targets; the home districts of the Congressional members who can still be influenced on defense budget issues; and the districts that stand to lose the most economically should sequestration come to pass.
Constituents in these communities need to be reminded of the jobs that defense contracting creates; the security threats that still loom at home and abroad (even though the prior Administration’s arguably overplaying of threat issues may slightly diminish those messages’ impact); and the often irreplaceable role that defense contractors play in keeping America safe. That means aggressively reaching out to local media in these districts. And it means directing online optimization efforts toward the local communities that can make a difference on Capitol Hill.
5. Dominate social and digital media.
And just what are online optimization efforts? They are strategies to ensure that companies’ online properties (websites, social media profiles, etc.) are highly-ranked by Google and the other search engines that dominate the informational landscape today. Via Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) initiatives, contractors can control the conversations surrounding their brands and the issues impacting their industries; elevate the visibility of their products and services; and – as mentioned above – target these outreach efforts to the local communities with the power to influence defense budget decisions.
Of course, contractor social and digital media strategy is more than just optimization. It is reaching out to the blogs that influence defense industry perceptions. It is engaging the social media space to build awareness of, and affinity for, your products and services. And it is a strong investment in LinkedIn, which has become the marquee social media venue for B2B and B2G communicators and marketers today.
In the era of sequestration, the defense subcontractors that take their communications to the next level will not only protect their slice of the Pentagon procurement pie; the will also find themselves well-positioned to dominate the market when the budget pendulum inevitably swings back toward national security priorities.
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Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.