5 ways the defense industry can fight sequestration

With massive procurement cuts looming, business with the government takes on a new meaning as defense contractors must articulate value not just to the government, but to the grassroots as well.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the House of Representatives issued their response to President Obama’s call for $5.2 billion in core Defense Department spending reductions for fiscal 2013. First, the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee put forth a proposal that exceeds the White House’s budget request by $1.1 billion. Just a few hours later, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard McKeon (R – Calif.), issued his own rendering of the defense authorization bill, which exceeds President Obama’s proposed budget by $3.7 billion.

Both the Democratic and tandem Republican proposals come in above the funding levels set forth in the Budget Control Act, which in 2011 called for federal deficit reductions of $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. At first glance, that’s a seemingly significant win for the defense industry. But if Congress fails to pass a budget in line with the budget act’s requirements before the end of the year (an increasingly likely scenario in the current political environment), a process known as sequestration will force mandatory cuts of $600 billion in defense spending over the next ten years – beginning immediately in January 2013.

In the context of the impending sequester, the three defense funding proposals currently on the table aren’t as much a win for defense contractors as they are a symbol of the burgeoning partisan divides that Congress must bridge before defense procurement is reduced to mere table scraps. Under sequestration, defense procurement would be diminished by $94 billion over the next five years. Absent a budget act-aligned budget, the only way sequestration could be avoided is if Congress passes and President Obama signs a law designed to block it.

Not since the credit ceiling debacle has partisan gridlock presented such a dire threat to the U.S. economy (defense isn’t the only industry that relies heavily on federal procurement). Still, the prospects for bipartisan consensus seem grim. The 2012 election cycle is shaping up to be among the most bitterly contested in history. With negative advertising already dominating the political conversation, the mood is likely to be anything but conciliatory when the 113th Congress is seated and either Mr. Obama retains or Mr. Romney assumes the presidency.

As such, it is incumbent upon the defense industry to add its voice to the growing chorus of Americans seeking bipartisan cooperation in Washington D.C. – not just behind closed doors in the Capital City’s corridors of power; but among the numerous communities of support that will feel the sting of sequestration most. What’s needed is a shift away from traditional grass-tops lobbying and toward new digital forms of grassroots mobilization. By embracing the five following strategies, defense contractors can put the people’s power on their side – and perhaps even dent the dysfunction that is the hallmark of this polarized era.

1. Mobilize social media connections.

The defense industry’s Twitter followers, Facebook fans, YouTube subscribers, and blog readers aren’t just a symbol of brand affinity; they are constituents that span nearly every congressional district in the country. As such, they need to be cultivated from among the industry’s communities of support and then mobilized as a reserve corps that can be deployed to voice the American people’s opposition to sequestration. Issues of national security, job creation, and overall economic recovery all represent platforms by which defense contractors can rally the grassroots and reach the critical mass needed to move the needle in Washington D.C.

2. Control the search engines.

When Web users turn to Google for information on “sequestration,” “budget deficits,” “defense spending,” or “defense contractors,” whose messages are they going to see on the all-important first page of results? The side that controls the search engines essentially holds the high ground when it comes to high-profile public affairs battles. As such, the defense industry needs to initiate search engine optimization and marketing campaigns that highlight its national security and job creation messages. It must also utilize search engine optimization and marketing to ensure it dominates the conversation should tangential negative headlines arise (i.e. last week’s reports that F-22 flights are being limited due to oxygen issues) – as this is no time for the industry to absorb reputational and brand assaults.

3. Geo-target.

To reach their maximum impact, the search and social media offensives outlined above must be geo-targeted to the local communities that will bear the heaviest burden should sequestration come to pass. Districts that will feel the pain of plant closures, base closings, and other negative economic impacts are most likely to transform defense contractors’ online engagement into offline action. That means search engine optimization and marketing campaigns – and the messages they support – need to be geared toward those districts, even as social media outreach is directed towards those online venues where community members converge to discuss the issues impacting their local communities.

4. Reach out to the bloggers.

In recent years, the blogosphere’s impact has grown exponentially. Not only do they serve as the traditional media’s assignment editors, but they have grown so reflective of public opinion that they’re stories have taken on tracking poll significance on Capitol Hill. As such, defense contractors need to identify the high-authority bloggers that cover their industry, targeted districts, and inside-the-Beltway policy debates. By building relationships with these influential voices, the defense industry can ensure its messages are being amplified by third-party supporters who enjoy a powerful and direct conduit for mobilizing the grassroots.

5. Forge alliances.

Finally, defense contractors need to provide themselves with strength in numbers by forging alliances with those who are similarly imperiled by sequestration. Other companies in the defense sector, other industries that rely heavily on federal procurement, and even a growing number of NGOs seeking more cooperation in Congress all represent opportunities for defense contractors to transform a unilateral effort into a coordinated campaign that extends their reach and provides a strong show of support.

Most Americans don’t know it yet, but the United States is confronting a watered-down version of austerity that will have a significant impact on millions of lives should it come to pass. That means the defense industry has millions of allies in the fight to prevent sequestration. By educating these allies about the realities of the sequester, and encouraging them to fight it tooth and nail, defense contractors provide themselves the best chance to salvage a significant slice of the federal procurement pie.