Rantingprofs links to a commentary by 2Slick, the Army captain in Kuwait right now. He’s trying, in his enthusiastic and intemperate way, to direct attention to a Naval Institute Proceedings article archived here. I’m going to add a few cents and tear a little of it apart.
Some sample excerpts from the James Lacey article:
Each of these journalists should have been cultivated by the units they were with, as well as by the military as a whole. By giving them preferred access, the military would help many of their careers and bind them closer then ever. Some journalists, not given this kind of treatment, will scream that journalists covering the military this way will lose all objectivity. This is a facile argument and hardly worthy of comment. Why do the journalists who have the crime beat in New York City and hang out at One Police Plaza never get accused of being too cozy with the police force? How is it the White House Press Corps, which gets all kinds of privileged access and perks, is never accused of being too cozy with the President?
The PAO process needs to be radically rebuilt. Critical to accomplishing this is reversing the passive mind-set of the PAO community such that it ceases being a filter for information and becomes actively engaged in making sure information gets out the door. There is no reason PAOs should be sitting back waiting for journalist inquiries or requests for interviews. Every day they should be out executing an aggressive media plan to get the military story in front of the public. This has to go beyond the sterility of a periodic press release or press briefing. It means spending every day trying to get important stories into the hands of journalists or facilitating stories already in the works.
To do this, military public affairs organizations need to employ some radical new business concepts.
Every businessperson knows that if you want to stay in business you have to anticipate customers’ needs and supply them. PAOs have two customers-the organization they serve and the media who come to them for information. They are failing both. Ask your average PAO what information the command wants to get out next week or over the course of a year and the vast majority will give you a blank stare, or worse. Worse would include, “We want to make sure everyone knows what a magnificent job the soldiers in this organization are doing. On a daily basis they are accomplishing the mission under the most . . .” Thank you, but journalists have all the pabulum they need. PAOs need to get more knowledgeable about the specifics of what their organizations are doing and then be aggressive in getting that story out.
When it comes to getting closer to or understanding the media, the PAO community is failing miserably. Yes, there are some bright lights, but they are few and far between. Programs such as “Working with Industry” are a step in the right direction, but they are much too small to have any serious practical effect.
There’s more, including suggestions about sending liaison officers to permanent news bureau billets, paying for journalists to do their job, having more senior officers in front of cameras, and other such ideas.
Here are some things I don’t think were considered by Lacey, and showstoppers that will kill any implementation of some of his recommendations. I don’t have this fleshed out, and need to think about it more, but here’s the deal.
- Risk Versus Gain For The Warfighter
Let’s say you’re a tank driver. Every time you talk to a journalist–every time–you risk losing your entire career or worse. Whatever gain you get is diffuse, long term (even years later), and unmeasurable. This isn’t easy to fix, either. The magazine in which this article appeared (Proceedings) is good–I’ve published there, and subscribe–but it’s also legendary in the Navy for indirectly causing interesting and not necessarily good things to happen to the authors of controversial articles. That’s just eating our own young. Imagine the frowns when Tank Driver makes a mistake like the Health and Human Services director did on his last day. (Per Taranto:)
Oh, this is great: Tommy Thompson announced Friday that he’s leaving his post as secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Associated Press reports he made this comment: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”
Uh, maybe it’s because until Friday, no one had suggested it to them?
- Information War Skills Crowd Out Other Skills
If you have ‘x’ time to do all the other things a tank driver does, how much time do you have to get good at being a public affairs weenie? It’s a learned skill. Marines take it to their limit with “every Marine is a PAO”, but even they have specialists in the job. It’s going to crowd out something else. What do they not do now that they’re doing today?
- PAO Skills Are Not Warfighting Skills
Some people are articulate and skilled in talking to the press. I’m not saying don’t talk to the press, or the public–the public pays for our services and salaries and are owed an honest accounting–I’m saying I’m not going to pick Ed to talk to the reporter wanting me to stop everything and talk, because Ed has trouble doing it. Does this mean that Ed can’t make O-6? Maybe–but maybe Ed’s one great leader. Now what? You’re back to using skilled experts again. Any change to the process needs to take this into account–warfighting skills are paramount. Yes, it’s an information war as well as a shooting war, but the shooting has to be done right. PAO is not Job One for the warfighter, no matter how important it is otherwise–PA is a force multiplier and you have to have the force to multiply. You can have shooters without PA but PA without shooters is pretty ineffective. And I say this with some collateral experience in the field.
- If You Want PAOs, Quit Hiring Them Away From Us
All I’ll say about this one is that I could have made O-4 a year or more faster if I had shifted to PAO, and had a better shot at O-6, because the more senior public affairs guys are recognized as the experts in their field and get hired for big bucks by companies clamoring for their skills.
Let me say that again.
Navy public affairs officers are courted by companies because they are seen as a great asset to a civilian company.
Those companies are not stupid. If they like Navy PAOs so much they aren’t doing it for the novelty. If they see the value then our PAO system must not be as broken as the journalist thinks.
So why the dichotomy? Why does Journalist dislike the PAO? Perhaps because the PAO is not just there for him, and because defensive public affairs is part of their job as well. Perhaps he got a lot of chuckleheads, too–my personal experience with PAOs is that they are really good or really bad.
- Risk Versus Gain, Part Two
General Mike Dugan became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and started trying to get the Air Force to be more forward leaning in its interactions with the media. In one interview, he said some things that were (a) what the Air Force according to him thought of the world, (b) revealing of potential operational choices in battle, and (c ) contrary to the views of his boss. Dugan was fired.
One possible reason? Gen. Dugan made a sound decision to move towards more openness, but at four stars it’s a little late to learn how to talk in front of a reporter’s tape recorder. (For more on Dugan, this article has some details. I disagree with the author–this isn’t a First Amendment issue, it’s a “annoying your military superior” issue, and the National Security Advisor doesn’t “authorize” a DoD official to speak.)
It is very tough to become open after a lifetime of being protective against risk. Some people never will be able to subscribe to particular PA tactics or outlets. (Example: some senior guys will not write for Proceedings no matter how good their idea.)
- This Ain’t Just DoD’s Problem
State has a similar issue with their Public Diplomacy guys, Voice Of America, you name it. I don’t think they’ve figured it out either. I need more knowledge on this, though, to say more.
Okay, now that I’ve complained, some suggestions. Lacey has some good ideas, even though some of them are seen only from the individual journalist’s perspective. Warriors need PA training from the bottom up, and not just “don’t talk to the media–direct it to the CO”, which is good but not sufficient. There is a message and it still needs pounded. We need better message integration with higher folks. And we need to take better account of what information fires are being shot and what their effects are.
I say that last in passing but it could be really powerful–I’ve been thinking a little about it. More when I get some brain cells working.
Update: MediaLies rants and picks up a scary piece of logic I missed:
Anyone who thinks a journalist is ethically bound to go back and fix wrong information or impressions is fooling himself. Even current military stories are competing for space against J-Lo's latest wedding. Editors are not giving up space to rehash the past-historical record be damned. Besides, too many corrections will begin to make it look like I could not get the right story in the first place, and what compelling reason is there to make myself look incompetent?
So, let me get this straight. As a journalist, I have no responsibility for telling the truth or even for correcting errors when they are exposed? And to think that getting the story right to begin with would solve all of this!
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