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.

warning symbolCONTENT WARNING: The following information references suicide.

If you, or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, seek support from a health care provider, counselor or chaplain. For immediate help in dealing with a suicidal crisis, contact the free and confidential Veterans/Military Crisis Line. Dial 988, then press 1.

Visit the Defense Suicide Prevention Office for more valuable resources for suicide prevention in our military community.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


Sep 25, 2019
Backlash from the Community

The USS Bush received backlash from the community following the two posts. Negativity came from the perception that little was being done to address the root causes. The audience interpreted this as the USS Bush being tone-deaf to the situation.


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 post was met with positive comments and supportive shares.


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.


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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