We are losing the public affairs battle

OPFOR turned me on to what the retired generals and admirals were talking about at the GO/Flag Officers Conf on Iraq. 

None of them called for Rumsfeld to resign, but they did have this to say about the info war:

Public Affairs: We are losing the public affairs battle for a variety of reasons. First, in Iraq, the terrorists provide Al Jazeera with footage of their more spectacular attacks and they are on TV to the whole Arab world within minutes of the event. By contrast it takes four to six days for a story generated by Army Public Affairs to gain clearance by Combined Forces Command, two or three more days to get Pentagon clearance, and after all that, the public media may or may not run the story.

Second, the U.S. mainstream media (MSM) who send reporters to the combat zone do not like to have their people embedded with our troops. They claim that the reporters get “less objective” when they live with the soldiers and marines – they come to see the world through the eyes of the troops. As a consequence, a majority of the reporters stay in hotels in the “Green Zone” and send out native stringers to call in stories to them by cell phone which they later write up and file. No effort is made to verify any of these stories or the credibility of the stringers. The recent serious injuries to Bob Woodruff of ABC and Kimberly Dozier of CBS makes the likelihood of the use of local stringers even higher.

Third, the stories that are filed by reporters in the field very seldom reach the American public as written. An anecdote from Col. McMaster illustrates this dramatically. TIME magazine recently sent a reporter to spend six weeks with the 3rd ACR as they were in the battle of Tal Afar. When the battle was over, the reporter filed his story and also included close to 100 pictures that the accompanying photographer took. TIME published a cover story on the battle a week later, allegedly using the story sent in by their reporter. When the issue came out, the guts had been edited out of their reporter’s story and none of the pictures he submitted were used. Instead they showed a weeping child on the cover, taken from stock photos. When the reporter questioned why his story was eviscerated, his editors in New York responded that the story and pi ctures were “too heroic”. McMaster had read both and told me that the editors had completely changed the thrust and context of the material their reporter had submitted.

As a sidebar on the public affairs situation, Colonel Bob McRee, who was also on the panel and is bringing a Military Police Battalion to Iraq next month, invited the Colorado Springs Gazette to send a reporter with the battalion for six weeks to two months. He assured the Gazette, in writing one month ago, that he would provide full time bodyguards for the reporter, taking the manpower out of his own hide. The Gazette has yet to respond to his offer.

Not many solutions offered.  Bypassing the national media and building relationships with the local hometown media is a start.  Every unit has a home, and every post, base and port has a local civilian paper that publishes stories about the local units.  The journos in the bush leagues are less ideological than the NYT/WAPO/LAT crowd, and more likely to portray the troops in a favorable light.

UPDATE:  LTC Mike Lawhorn, soon to be Commander, AFN Korea, commented on OPFOR:

We’ve mistakenly called this the “Public Affairs Battle”. This completely frames the wrong issue. What is the “Public Affairs Battle”? The way it’s currently framed it makes several assumptions.

1- If we fight the battle the right way, people will overwhelmingly support the war in Iraq. This is very similar to the old PR theory of “if you only knew what we knew, you’d agree with us. There is no room in this theory for people who know what we know, but still decide to be against the war. In other words, we can never agree to disagree.

2- By calling it the PA battle, we put the onus for winning on public affairs professionals. Combine this with number one above, and you get a situation where I, as a PAO, am now responsible for whether or not the public supports the war.

3- If the military is guilty of not engaging the media quickly enough on certain stories (and we are), it ain’t the fault of PAOs. I completely agree with the comment:

By contrast it takes four to six days for a story generated by Army Public Affairs to gain clearance by Combined Forces Command, two or three more days to get Pentagon clearance, and after all that, the public media may or may not run the story.

But notice that Army public affairs is generating the story…where does it go from there? It ultimately has to be approved by a ton of non-PAO types. That’s where our problem is.

Imagine an infantry commander having to clear fires for every single instance in which someone in his company fires a weapon in Iraq…you can see where that leads.

We’re not fighting a public affairs battle. We’re fighting the same battle that is always fought with the media: a battle with the self-appointed gatekeepers of news. It’s a battle with those who have decided what the news is and isn’t, and who won’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, we can’t simply fight the battle with our own stories and our own web sites. This is why we need to reach out faster to other, non-traditional media, such as bloggers. We need to be less sensitive to those blogs or comments by servicemembers that are rough…and not completely lose our minds every time a soldier says, “I fucking hate it here”.

And we need to release some authority down the chain to engage the media … especially in an era where we have embedded media that we don’t control and through whom we don’t clear information. How is it that we will allow an embedded reporter who might write anything at all, but if we want to say it, it has to be cleared all the way back to the Pentagon for relatively minor things?

Finally, we need to change the way we train our future leaders to deal with the media, and do away with “ambush style” interview training. I’m blogging a little more in depth on that last issue later.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “We are losing the public affairs battle

  1. Cannoneer

    In retrospect I think that LTC Lawhorn has it right. Simply getting the story out faster isn’t the answer.

    Regards,
    Tom

  2. I posted this on Op For and it has to be the most importnat post I have sent to those concerend in months. You will never hear any of this in the MSM and even in places like FOX and NR. I was stunned to read the way in which the MSM ‘gets’ its stories from the ‘field’ (code word for hotels and local friendly intel). It’s simply amazing.

  3. Thanks for posting it. That inforrmation deserves widest dissemination.

  4. Reading a military blog discussing “engaging the media” put a big smile on my face. I suppose my little daydream of a JDAM engaging the NYT building is too sweet to be true but if one is to dream, dream the really good kind!

    Rest assured, the folks in flyover country are staying informed. I took a Marine home on leave to lunch. He confirmed my suspicion that we aren’t getting the truth from the MSM but I go to the web for news anyway.

    As for the lefties, they will get theirs soon enough.