How Public Relations Catalyzed the Modern U.S. Navy

By Nathaniel Giallanza

Since the genesis of the modern U.S. Navy following World War I, the Department of the Navy has utilized public relations to bolster the maritime service’s reputation and encourage recruitment. From the 1940s era pamphlets featuring drawings of TBF Avenger dive-bombers to today’s high-definition videos of F/A-18 Super Hornets, the Navy’s public affairs community has never shied from utilizing its vast resources of military hardware to display the pride and prestige that comes with serving as a sailor. However, before the outbreak of conflict in the Pacific Theater, where naval warfare took precedence over terrestrial conflict, the U.S. Navy lacked the critical strategic communications necessary to keep the strongest oceangoing force alive and kicking. Through the use of wartime public relations, the Navy catalyzed its role into the worldwide hegemonic security duty that would become its mainstay mission to the present day.

Prior to the advent of intensive U.S. Navy public relations campaigning, the United States’s position in or around a war determined the funding level for the branch. As shown by budget statistics from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Navy experienced slow fiscal growth during the early 1900s. Budgetary increases only occurred when the outbreak of war became a possibility, and the naval arms races of Great Britain and Germany began to accelerate. By this time, new developments in maritime technology and maritime warfare doctrine meant that the U.S. Navy had become relatively inferior compared to its European counterparts. When the U.S. finally declared war in 1917, the Navy fielded destroyers and destroyer escorts primarily for anti-submarine duties in the Atlantic. U.S. capital ships saw little to no action against the modern fleets of the Central Powers.

By the Interwar Period, defense industry analysts realized that a future conflict would necessitate a requirement for strong fleets of capital ships in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to ensure the U.S.’s beaches’ safety. Gone were the days of limited naval focus as preemptive research and investment into novel technologies dominated the attention of the U.S. Department of War. By the 1920s, however, public attention shifted from wartime concern to the pleasures and niceties of peacetime. Taxpayer support for defense-related research and development waned, as did enlistment into the armed services. Moreover, the Department of the Navy itself struggled with maintaining and developing its image both externally and internally. Navy leadership eventually realized the need to recapture the public’s attention and, as such attempted a series of lengthy public relations efforts.

Most of these efforts, such as the establishment of the Navy News Bureau and the Information Section of the Office of Naval Intelligence, failed to produce the results necessary to attract public sentiment toward the service. Due to the attitude of secrecy surrounding naval developments, a silent culture pervaded and disallowed the Navy to advertise itself in a way conducive to enamoring the civilian world or even its own sailors. The perception of the venereal disease-ridden and drunken sailor still ruled popular opinion of oceanic military service. The Navy would not see positive comprehensive results concerning public relations until World War II.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Navy found itself understaffed and ill-prepared to take on the Imperial Japanese Empire in the vast Pacific Ocean. Admiral Yamamoto’s carrier-launched aircraft had succeeded in destroying a large portion of the U.S.’s Pacific capital fleet and had only narrowly missed sinking American aircraft carriers as well. Thus, the Department of the Navy increased its public relations efforts in order to bolster confidence in the U.S.’s ability to wage war against Japan and to rouse enlistment fervor during a time of great uncertainty and fear. For the first time, the Navy commissioned reservist journalists, public relations practitioners, and photographers as Public Relations Officers (PRO) and enlisted men as Enlisted Naval Correspondents (ENC). These sailors captured the history of the rapidly expanding U.S. Navy as it combatted both the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in the Atlantic, oftentimes serving abroad aboard warships and close to enemy lines.

The Navy’s World War II public relations efforts proved highly successful in encouraging recruitment, boosting morale, and positively influencing the public’s perception of the branch. In addition, favor for auxiliary roles in support of the Navy such as shipbuilding and aircraft construction increased. ENCs and PROs provided the public with stories involving acts of bravery or other significance from within the Navy during the war. Many of these stories were photographed and documented by enlisted men who eventually returned to civilian communications practice following the war.

According to the U.S. Navy Public Affairs Association, Rear Admiral George C. Dyer convened a board in 1945 to address the need for officers in niche fields and concluded the necessity for greater public information. In 1946, the Navy commissioned 48 officers as public information specialists from a pool of officers “having backgrounds of public relations, newspaper work, advertising, radio or writing experience or graduates in journalism, or regulars with inclination or aptitudes for public relations work” from every ship and station.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the Navy has only increased its public relations efforts. The threat of the Soviet Union and the global spread of communism ensured that the U.S. Navy would never again fall victim to the culture of silence that crippled its image prior to World War II. Public support for a large navy became necessary to ensure that the U.S. could defend its post-war assets in Asia and Europe should the communist forces have launched an assault. Indeed, these fears came to fruition when the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950 and later when the French withdrew from Indochina in 1954. Again, ENCs and now Public Information Specialists deployed aboard warships and to combat zones to document and photograph naval wartime action.

Today, over 300 officers serve as Public Affairs Officers (PAO) under the Chief of Naval Information (CHINFO). Enlisted sailors known as Mass Communication Specialists (MC) operate under the command of PAOs. While the media landscape has transformed drastically since 1945, the sailors who serve in a public relations capacity today perform much of the same tasks as their predecessors.

The establishment of official public relations channels within the U.S. Navy has aided in making the branch the most powerful oceangoing force and second-largest air force in the world today. Strategic communications and effective public affairs have allowed the armed force to cultivate its image and share stories of the sailors that define its culture and heritage. Although not a large part of its past, public relations has proven to be the key to future success for the U.S. Navy.