Friday, March 23, 2007

Inept public relations 
Ask any trade show planner and they'll tell you - be sure to set up somewhere where media can go to file their stories. That's the way to get good, favorable coverage of your exhibitors, and lots of it.

The military, of course, with so many public affairs types who have never held a real job in their lives, and with an officer corps that too often considers media relations as a chore rather than an opportunity, is fucking it up, big time.

Here's Michael Yon:

The great difficulty in filing stories from Iraq is leading me to experiment. We are into the fifth year of the war Iraq, yet no comprehensive system exists to help media communicate to people at home. Raw information only trickles back from Iraq because the flow is strangled. That we are into the fifth year of war here, yet there is no filing center on even the larger bases is telling. Telling, perhaps, that information flow to America has never been a priority, or perhaps the priority has been to squelch it. The system of elaborate excuses is the only part of it all that is well-refined.

Well, if anyone's been wondering why journos so rarely leave the green zone, there's one answer for you.

I’ve been evicted from a trailer due to lack of space (something I cover more in a dispatch ready to launch tomorrow). Billions of dollars are spent on the war each month, millions of dollars fly around here like sparrows, yet there are no designated places for journalists? While so many soldiers and their families shout for coverage from Afghanistan (remember that place?) and Iraq, I can sometimes be found from midnight to sunrise sitting outside, trying to transmit photos through a wireless network that only works sometimes.

Chances are very good that the Army didn't set up that wireless network, but soldiers or marines took it on themselves.

I have not left base in a good two weeks. This is unprecedented, given that sometimes I would run two or three missions per day, or at least try for five or six or seven per week. Trying to get living quarters and good communications is truly a waste of time. Only the richest or most determined news agencies dare come here for more than a brief stay. Most of the journalists seem to start cracking pretty quick anyway.

Generally it’s a huge waste of time and money to come here, and the hassle and risk to reward ratio is very bad. I’ve spent more than a year embedded in Iraq, and numerous times public affairs people have made snide remarks that journalists should be happy they get to eat “their chow” for free. Of course, they don’t mention that “their chow” belongs to American taxpayers, the same taxpayers they hurt when they squelch journalism from the war. Whether they do it directly, intentionally indirectly, or just by plain bungling the simplest stuff, like making sure writers have a surface to write on, whatever the case, I haven’t met anyone yet who knows how to write or hold a camera who comes to Iraq for free food. It’s really not fun here, next to impossible to do the job, and the food is nothing special. After all, we’re not talking about covering the French army.

Back during Yon's first embedding in Mosul, he had a close relationship with a local battalion commander and staff. It was that command emphasis on media relations that made all the difference. Here it looks like the commanders have left media relations to underlings - and selected some of the weakest staff officers to the task. Well, maybe not weakest, but staff officers who wish they were doing something else.

Media relations is vital to the war effort, and deserves support from commanders, the officer, and NCO corps. Indeed, I/O failures may be the most damaging failures the military has right now.

But considering all the planning, organization, logistics and resources that went in to putting up what amounts to a food court in a surburban mall, how hard would it be, really, for there to be a clean, well-lit press trailer, open 24-7, with some desks, chairs and lockers, wired for the internet? Not on every base, but on enough of them so that stories from everywhere else could get out on a regular basis. For a military that is the first to gripe about not getting enough press–in a kind of war where the press can determine the outcome–it seems fairly obvious that the first step would be to at least make sure there is a place for the press to work. If this were a few months into this war, I could understand it, but to not even be at square one this far in?

Yes, that seems lame. Did you that IF is the middle word in "Life?"

A general emailed in the past 24 hours threatening to kick me out.

Some General wants Michael Yon, of all people, out of the country?

Betcha Petraeus would have other ideas if he knew.

The first time the Army threatened to kick me out was in late 2005, just after I published a dispatch called “Gates of Fire.” Some of the senior level public affairs people who’d been upset by “Proximity Delays” were looking ever since for a reason to kick me out and they wanted to use “Gates of Fire” as a catapult. In the events described in that dispatch, I broke some rules by, for instance, firing a weapon during combat when some of our soldiers were fighting fairly close quarters and one was wounded and still under enemy fire. That’s right. I’m not sure what message the senior level public affairs people thought that would convey had they succeeded, (which they didn’t) but it was clear to me what they valued most. They want the press on a short leash, even at the expense of the life of a soldier.

There are reasons to discourage pressies from picking up a weapon in a combat zone, as a matter of policy. Number one, they aren't subject to the UCMJ. Number two, there's no way to ensure that they'll be shooting at our enemies rather than at our own troops. You know, like they do with their articles.

In this case, though, it seems that Yon could argue he was firing in self defense, and journalists have as absolute a right to self defense as anyone else on the battlefield.

Sounds like one of what Hackworth used to call a "perfumed prince."

I’ll post a major dispatch within the next 18 hours. Lots of photos. I worked very hard for you. They’ll probably say I broke some kind of rules. Fact is, as soon as the public affairs people will start being part of the solution and not part of the problem, I can start writing about the successes and the soldiers like Q who are out in Baghdad even now, trying to make this work.


Splash, out


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This is what happens since we completely ignored media relations after Vietnam. I've not even been in the AF a year and I can see that we lost the media battle before it began. Unfortunately, that's the battle which is paramount we win.

Commanders need to understand the role the media plays in modern conflict, realize how vital it is and work to improve relations. More favorable media coverage could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
As part of an organization that trains the commanders in question on IO and media relations (among other things), I assure you they incresingly do understand the role media plays. What this piece makes clear, though, is that we probably haven't done a good enough job educating them on what the media needs from them to fulfill that role. I'll see what we can do about fixing that.

BTW, Jason, I think it's unfair of you to characterize Army PAOs as "types who have never held a real job in their lives" is extremely unfair. They all have to hold "real jobs" before becoming PAOs, and once they do, the ones I've worked with in training are extremely hard working as PAOs. Where some of them fall short is in education/training. Some seem surprisingly naive about media matters given their positions.
PS. Jason, please update the original entry with a link to the Yon article.

Mr. Yon says: "They’ll probably say I broke some kind of rules."

Did he? Is this a pre-emptive strike to enlist public support to try to keep himself from being kicked out? I'm confident he wouldn't break rules that would endanger men or mission, but there are LOTS of rules, including ones that contradict each other.
For guys who have allegedly read Clausewitz as a condition of promotion to field and flag rank, a lot of senior officers seem to be quite ignorant of the axiom that war is a contest of wills, and the role of the media on firming up (or destroying, or simply allowing to rot through neglect) the national will.
A General Brooks (vincent.brooks@us.army.mil) is the one supposedly giving Michael a rough time. If you write him be civil. I wrote the JCS and the President when this started last week. Michael is honest, but there is another side of the story. I financially support Michael and I support him in this situation. It is obvious that the whole US government doesn’t know how to deal with the media, not just Gen Brooks. There is also a history behind this since Michael went after Gen Brooks (and others) for using one of his famous pictures without his permission. I don’t know if it is just President Bush or just the backlash from Vietnam, but the military is not doing well in getting the media on our side. This is another example of how we do not know how to fight the propaganda war.

As to Michael picking up the weapon and using it, those who doubt him should read the post on it. A senior officer was wounded three times and was still under attack. An enlisted man and an officer, both new to warfare in Iraq, froze. Michael did what he had to do. As those of us who follow the political side of warfare know, senior journals have been recorded saying if they knew a US patrol was to be ambushed, they could not interfere by warning them. Michael was admonished, but the officer wounded understood why he did what he did. I would have done the same thing. When I was thinking about going to Iraq with my company, I was told I could not carry and if I did I would be sent home (fired?). I unvolunteered. I knew could not remain unarmed for my self-defense and could not standby and watch a friend, a civilian or soldier get injured or killed because I did nothing. I would not be able to live with myself; I believe Michael has those same values.
Well, by 'real jobs' I meant jobs in the private sector that involved media relations.

I'm working for a company that does PR now, and the folks I work with bust their asses to ensure that the journos who cover our industry and clients have everything they need.

That takes proactivity, and it also takes support from the client as well. In this case, the client is the Military and their commands.
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