As a military academy, attracting the caliber of student with the potential to become tomorrow’s leaders is of the utmost importance. For the first time in its nearly 200 year history, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point finds itself vying for these “bests-of-the-bests” with other high profile colleges and universities. Though core programs are federally funded, in order to maintain its level of excellence and continue to attract future leaders, the Association of Graduates (AOG) of the Academy believe that they must create an environment comparable, if not better, in terms of academics and athletic facilities, etc., than other institutions of higher learning. It was for this reason that the AOG launched a $150 Million Bicentennial Fundraising Campaign. Subsequently, it hired Southard Communications to 1.) raise awareness for fundraising campaign with recent graduates and private sector donors, and 2.) stimulate renewed interest in the Academy among potential recruits.
With its 200 year anniversary approaching, the U.S. Military Academy found itself, for the first time in its colorful history, competing with high profile/Ivy League universities for students.
In order to maintain its competitive edge and continue to attract students with the potential to be future leaders, the Academy needed to provide cadets with an environment comparable to, if not better than, other institutions of higher learning.
The Association of Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy launched a $150 Million bicentennial fundraising campaign, the goal for which was to raise all funds by the Academy’s 200 year anniversary in the year 2002.
While the AOG had had success raising money through its more senior alumni, it was having trouble securing donations from the population of cadets that had graduated within the past 15-20 years. Their only resources were their alumni publication, and time-consuming solicitation calls.
In light of recent, less than positive press at some of the nation’s other military institutions, interest in committing oneself to a military academy had lost a lot of its cache. There also seemed to be a fear of “the unknown” among potential recruits. While an institute of learning, West Point is still first and foremost a military post, therefore allowing media a peek behind its walls was never an option.
The agency and the AOG were also faced with alumni who were completely against change, or publicity of any sort.
PLANNING PROCESS/STRATEGIC APPROACH:
Charged with two goals, raise awareness for fundraising campaign with recent graduates, private sector donors, and; stimulate renewed interest in the Academy among potential recruits,
Southard Communications sought to identify a high-profile print medium with the potential to simultaneously reach both of our target audience groups, which were recent West Point graduates, those making decisions about which college or university to apply/attend, including parents, relatives, counselors and mentors.
We realized that finding a publication that would meet all of the audience criteria would be challenging to say the least. After extensive research of the demographical profiles of a slew of publications, we arrived at Parade Magazine.
After identifying our main target, Parade Magazine, the agency crafted a compelling letter to the publication’s editor in chief, offering the magazine something that had never before been offered to the media – a look inside the walls of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Parade Magazine was the top priority placement for the U. S. Military Academy for several reasons, including: 1) a huge readership of more than 37 million, 2) an unparalleled reputation as an outstanding news magazine with a strong family theme and 3) its broad demographic reach – designed for Americans of all ages. Several follow-calls later, we had secured a meeting with the editor-in-chief to explore placement opportunities. At this time, we recommend the magazine, together with a photographer, attend Founders Day at the U.S. Military Academy, to be followed with numerous visits to West Point to speak with cadets about their experience. Noted reporter Larry Smith was assigned to the project, and famed photographer Eddie Adams (who photographed the famous Vietnamese War photo) was assigned as photographer.
We then had to convince the Academy and the U.S. Army to provide significant on-site “freedom” to Larry Smith and Eddie Adams. We made a detailed presentation to the Academy leadership, and ultimately won the support of the West Point Superintendent, General Christman. At that point we arranged for General Christman, along with agency staff members, to meet with the editor-in-chief of Parade Magazine. At the meeting, the Superintendent (with coaxing from the agency) agreed to give Parade virtually unlimited access inside the Academy walls. The publisher immediately took us up on the offer and the visits (starting with Founders Day) commenced and last for more than eight full months, with Larry Smith living and breathing West Point.
While we met with some resistance to completely “open all the doors” at West Point, we ultimately prevailed in gaining widespread and uninhibited access to all aspects of West Point.
Southard Communications maintained close contact with the reporter throughout the investigation and writing process. The result was a Cover Feature, including three and a half pages of editorial in the Sunday, May 7, 2000 issue of Parade. The story focused on the key principles of West Point: Duty, Honor, Country and profiled the “new” West Point as well as providing a nostalgic look at past leaders of the U.S. Military Academy, including General Douglas MacArthur, and succeeded in humanizing the academy. It gave potential cadets a truthful look at life inside the Academy that both debunked misconceptions and presented the military institution in a light in which it had not ever been seen.
Immediately following the release of the Parade Magazine article, the Academy’s admissions department noted a 30+% increase in catalog requests. Additionally, the Association of Graduates noted an increase in contributions from private donors, bringing them within $5 million of their $150 million goal.