Finish What You Start: Stay Engaged With Public Conversations

Case Study 4 min
A U.S. Navy tragedy provides insight and valuable lessons on engagement when dealing with a sensitive subject.

On 23 September 2019 the commander of USS George H.W. Bush, CAPT Sean Bailey, made the tragic announcement that three sailors had committed suicide, marking a total of five in just under two years.

Real World Example: Finish What You Start

Navigate the timeline by selecting points of information.

Sep 23, 2019
Initial Social Media Post

A week after losing three Sailors to suicide, CAPT Bailey posted a message on social media.


A screenshot of a Facebook post from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) account with the following text:

Avengers, Family, and Friends,

It is with a heavy heart that I can confirm the loss of three Sailors last week in separate, unrelated incidents from apparent suicide. My heart is broken.

These deaths mark the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the last two years. Now is the time to come together as a crew and as a family to grieve, to support each other, and to care for those in need.

We need All Hands to engage by bringing forward your suggestions and ideas for how we can work together to prevent another suicide. I want to reiterate that there is never any stigma or repercussion from seeking help.

Chaplains, psychologists, counselors, and leadership are engaged and available on board at all times to provide support and counseling to those grieving. I ask that you watch closely for stressors that anyone is experiencing when they face a significant life change such as:

  • Relationship problems
  • Personal or professional loss
  • Recent career transitions
  • Financial difficulties
  • Disciplinary / legal issues

Please continue to respect the privacy of the families during this difficult time. Speculating or spreading false stories is not helpful and disrespectful of the families and crewmates who are suffering from these losses.

Help is always available. If you find yourself in need, call the Suicide Hotline number at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647. You can also text “home” to the Crisis Hotline at 741741. Asking for help and supporting those who reach out is a sign of strength and resilience and never viewed negatively.

This is the time when we need to come together as a crew and as a family to support each other and care for those in need.

Very Respectfully,
CAPT Sean Bailey
Commanding Officer
USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77)

Sep 23, 2019
A Supportive Response

Positive support from the community of condolences, empathy and sadness began to roll in but so did the comments of shared experiences and blame.


A screenshot of replies to a Facebook post that read:

  • Praying for those soldiers and all who suffer
  • This is so sad. 5 people in one week. This is my son Markus's ship. Such a hard time this week for them all on the ship. Prayers to everyone.
  • What is the ROOT CAUSE of military suicide? Jesus was anti-empire. Read: "War is a Rachet" Major General Smedley Butler
    Major General US Marine Corps, Antiwar activist: 1881-1940...
  • My son is struggling right now, with stress, distrust, being lied on by superiors. Wrote for no reason. Working 22 hours shifts the whole the whole time he has been at sea. It's horrible for him. There SEEMS TO BE MAJOR PROBLEMS THAT ARE COSTING...

Sep 24, 2019
Public Response Turns Negative

As the views and responses to CAPT Bailey's post grew, USS Bush social media team lost control of the narrative.


A screenshot of replies to a Facebook post.

The first reply reads: "Saying there's no repercussions for seeking help is a LIE! The Navy will strip your security clearance and reassign you to pulling weeds and cleaning baseboards. Everyone will ostracize and avoid you. Then they'll Admin Sep you. Most people in the Navy are evil and they make jokes about anyone who complains of any type of depression or other thoughts! They also joke about people after they kill themselves!"

This is followed by three replies expressing emphatic agreement.

Sep 25, 2019
Ship Organizes a Safety Stand-Down

The USS Bush announces a safety stand-down on Facebook two days after the initial post.


A screenshot of a Facebook post from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) account.

The text reads: "On Wednesday and Thursday, #GHWB is gathering for a safety stand down to focus the crew on taking care of themselves and others and to learn about resources available to Sailors in need. #FreedomAtWork."

Sep 25, 2019
Backlash from the Community

The USS Bush received backlash from the community following the two posts. Negativity came from using Power Point for the Safety Stand-Down. The audience interpreted this as the USS Bush being tone deaf to the situation.


A screenshot of replies to a Facebook Post:

  • Ex post facto. Triad need fired.
  • Yeah, nothing like death by Power Point to really make the sailors feel like the command cares about them.
  • Yes because power points and dead horses have always been so successful at keeping sailors alive. Remember guys, take better care of yourselves because your leadership could care less!
  • Death by PowerPoint and no real solution. We must change the Navy's climate first!
  • I say this as a retired vet and as a parent... all the safety stand downs on Earth won't make up for a toxic command climate and the inability and/or unwillingness to truly support Sailors in crisis. Real changes need to be made here. Stand down are check-the-box crap.

Sep 26, 2019
Shared Post from MCPON

USS Bush shared a post from the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) speaking with Sailors during an all-hands call, "What We Do Is Hard, It's OK to Ask for Help". This was met with positive comment and supportive shares.


A screenshot of the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN77) Facebook Post.

The post reads: "Finding ways to check on each other--not like you're fulfilling the day's errands but in a truly authentic and meaningful way--is a great start. Embracing our shipmates as needed and beloved members of our Navy family: that is something you and I can do, or continue to do, in order to really make a difference."

Sep 28, 2019
Morning of Hope Walk is Held

USS Bush shared a post of how they joined more than 3,000 community leaders, citizens and other Sailors stationed in the Hampton Roads area for the Morning of Hope Walk in Virginia Beach, an annual event to remember the lives lost due to suicide.


A screenshot of a Facebook post from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) account.

The caption reads: "Crew members and command leadership of USS George H.W. Bush joined more than 3000 community leaders, citizens, and other Sailors stationed in the Hampton Roads area for the Morning of Hope Walk at Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach today. The Hampton Roads Morning of Hope Walk is an annual event to remember those lives lost due to suicide."

Initial Announcements

In the initial Facebook post, CAPT Bailey calls on all hands to bring forward ideas and reiterates that there is no stigma for asking for help. He asks all crew members to look empathetically at their shipmates and offer help in dealing with stressors. He shares emergency phone numbers outside of the ship, on base and off, opening the doors for sailors who don't want their command to know.

The overall message is one of strength, compassion and support. The post stays on top as the only post of the day.

Within two days, the ship has hosted a safety stand-down and a suicide prevention walk that had over 3000 members from the ship and the local community. 

However, this is a message intended for an internal audience being posted on an outward-facing platform. This opened up the commander to criticism he did not prepare for.  For something as serious as suicide, PA should have developed a communication plan and enlisted outside opinions BEFORE leaning forward and posting.

Uncontrolled Online Narrative

Initially, most of the responses were positive, but within a few days, the lid came off. Former sailors and civilians in high-stress jobs started pointing out the military culture needed to do more to address the very stressors it knew pushed their people past their breaking point. No one from the USS Bush responded.

The safety stand-down drew criticism as being tone-deaf, and with users pointing out that considering the initial call for empathy, the command could have done better than a presentation. Again, no response from the USS Bush, even when commenting grew increasingly incendiary.

PA should map out where they want the conversation to go, where they don't want it to go and where they expect it to go. From there, a plan needs to exist on how to vector the conversation back to a good spot, if it goes sideways.

Lessons Learned

When dealing with any high-sensitive topics, there needs to be some oversight and willingness to engage with responses that are genuine and authentic to the organization. Failure to do so will result in an uncontrolled narrative online. It is also important to note that you can empathize and sympathize without admitting guilt or responsibility. That said, if you bear responsibility, it's always best to admit it, apologize if necessary and offer a way to move on or make things right. This is a hard battle, especially on social media, where conflicting opinions are rampant. PA needs to communicate with leaders during normal operations about how they can engage when things go wrong. The community wanted to participate and help — witness the large crowd that came out to walk with their neighbors in support of the sailors.

  • Internal messages are not suited for external platforms
  • Engage with responses that are genuine and authentic
  • Incorporate micro-strategies into social media posts that support an overarching strategy that aligns with the unit Unique Value Proposition (UVP) and the commander's intent
  • Develop a communication plan and enlist outside opinions before posting
  • Ensure communication plan includes scenarios for a lost narrative

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