Authenticity Matters When the Stakes Are High

Case Study 4 min
Addressing a subject like suicide is difficult, and you don't have to dig too hard to find moments where commands got it wrong and came across as tone-deaf. This message on suicide awareness and prevention, delivered by General Robert B. Neller, 37th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, is a powerful example of what happens when a deeply caring individual uses a platform to speak about something mission-critical.

Since 9/11, four times as many U.S. service members and veterans have died by suicide than have been killed in combat, according to a report by Brown University.

The chief barrier to service members seeking help is the stigma around mental health and concerns about how their careers will be affected. One DoD report stated that "71 percent of active-duty military members surveyed reported that they did not seek help because of concerns that they would appear broken."

One of the more effective ways to address mental health concerns is leadership buy-in. When it comes from the top, it sets the tone.

General Neller and the communication strategist team make spectacular use of 71 seconds in a video about suicide awareness. Sixty seconds were planned for and scripted, and there is a distinct moment when it's clear that Gen. Neller thought the video was over. But by letting the camera keep rolling for an additional 11 seconds, an unexpected moment of humanity takes the spotlight.

A Hard Subject Faced Head-on
 

"If we're waiting to talk to a Marine when there's a problem...it's too late."

That's Gen. Neller's opening line of a powerful video that brings attention and awareness to suicide and prevention. As a stand-alone statement, it's attention-grabbing and meaningful. But when it's delivered by the commandant of the Marine Corps, looking directly into the camera with a soul-leveling gaze, it stops being a script and becomes a lifeline.

The simplicity of the surroundings lets the message take up all the space. The crew chose to film in an empty studio, without the trappings and distractions of an office, Gen. Neller standing in the center. The unspoken message is that there are no barriers between someone needing help and the highest-ranking officer in the corps.

The clip is rich with body language cues. Neller's voice is strong but understanding. His posture is sure but concerned. The camera lingers on Gen. Neller's hands, palm up and conveying his exasperation and vulnerability. But what happens in the last 11 seconds of the clip makes this message truly memorable. Rather than ending abruptly, the "hot mic" continued to capture a heartfelt exchange between Gen. Neller and a younger Marine. Shoulders slumped forward and eyes cast downward, Neller says, "See what you can do with that. I'm still not sure it's going to do... anything." It's a sobering moment to see someone so powerful become so vulnerable. The fight that is destroying his fellow Marines is physically weighing on him, and his sorrow is palpable.

Eleven Brutally Effective Seconds

The gamble of leaving in the last 11 seconds was one that the audience appreciated and respected. Viewers on YouTube recognized that the clip was "unscripted, as it should be," and that they appreciated the message "all the more because of the truth at the end."

This moment was unarguably authentic. More than one viewer pointed out, "you can tell he meant every word of that." Beneath the battle-scarred exterior of a tried and true warrior lies the heart of a Marine who has lost too many brothers and sisters and doesn't know what to do other than just say that it isn't easy.

Lessons Learned

As a public affairs professional and communication strategist, there will be many times command will ask for a video message. Follow the lead of the Marine communication team and consider all the possibilities to humanize the content. Consider the studio, the lighting, the camera angles and the script, and then be prepared to pivot if something extraordinary happens.

Place a Premium on Trust

Whether the subject is incredibly delicate like this one, or a much more routine public service announcement (PSA), the message has a greater chance of positive reception if your audience believes you. Achieving that trust isn't just writing words on a page and hoping for the best; it's carefully considering the right words delivered in the right environment by the right person. A PSA is much more impactful when given by someone with a strong connection to the content.

Pay Attention to B-Roll Footage

One of the clearest takeaways from this video is don't stop filming when the script is complete, stop filming when your principal is done. Some of the most powerful moments happen off-script, between takes. Always be conscious of opportunities and be ready to catch that audio or video.

Be Courageous in Editing

This message benefited greatly from moments without words. Watch for body language cues, such as a flick of the wrist, an exhausted sigh or a downcast gaze. Your audience will pick up on the subtle conveyance of emotion and will be able to better relate to the subject matter.

Every message is unique and deserves a unique perspective⁠—there is no one-size-fits-all formula. What's important is that you don't rush to the finish line, even when, in fact especially when, the subject is uncomfortable. Let your messenger be as real and raw as the message itself.

References

Mongilio, H. (2021, October 27). Pentagon report: Navy 2020 suicide rate lowest in four years.

Suit, T. H. III. (2021, June 21). High suicide rates among United States service members and veterans of the post- 9/11 wars. Boston University.

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