The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: June 2010

Having checked out cyberspace regarding the sacking of General McChrystal over the Rolling Stone Magazine coverage, it apears that there is chatter of conspiracy theories.  Basically, they centre on the possibility that the good General (a man who certainly seemed to get communication within the counter-insurgency context) deliberately created/engineeered/concocted the circumstances which led to the article, in order to (a) get fired so he wouldn’t be responsible for the Afghan debacle or (b) as a test of resolve of the White House in a Pentagon willy-waving statement.

Now CB3 isn’t one for conspiracy theories but on balance can see why, in this case, they are getting some profile – and it’s because of the “what the xxxx were they thinking?” factor.  The sheer absurdity of the events is mesmerising, especially to anyone who has ever worked in public affairs, public relations or media operations.  In fact, I’m sure many journalists are also pretty dumbfounded as to how it all happened.

It appears McChrystal’s team had absolutely no idea of their objectives regarding the interviews.  They hadn’t asked the WIIFM question (what’s in it for me (or rather, the General – or to be precise, the mission)).  Then the team seemed to abandon any notion of this having a strategic effect, wandered off subject, spoke outside their responsibility, forgot about research, treated Michael Hastings as a beer-drinking buddy, gave ill-thought through access, and generally behaved totally unprofessionally.  But these are experienced blokes – surely they know the game?

Well, it just goes to show that even the experienced can become complacent and hence make catastrophic mistakes, especially in a field as slippery, intangible, nebulous, unpredictable and downright tricky as dealing with the media.  No conspiracy, just complacency –  just Generals and media advisors forgetting that once engaged with the media, they no longer dominate the ‘battlespace’ (or for a corporate analogy, the marketplace).

And on complacency … for all those CEO’s and senior business leaders who think “no, we can handle the media … we’d never make mistakes like that”, it’s worthwhile remembering that McChrystal (just like BP’s Tony Hayward) was certainly no fool.

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According to the Times, BP said that its costs for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spill have reached $1.25 billion (£870 million) as it set out plans to place a second cap on the leak.  Further, as of 1 June, BP’s shares had fallen by 13%, as reported by the BBC.  It has lost nearly a third of its value since the Deepwater Horizon blowout on 20 April.

There is no doubt that the sheer severity of the Gulf catastrophe has had a monumental effect on the reputation of BP, justly or not, and the financial cost will be staggering.  But with perception being reality, how much has the ‘perception’ of BP’s response contributed to the financial accounts?

BP’s engineers, along with countless others from several agencies, have worked tirelessly to stem the oil flow, yet still they are seen as the culprits, while the US government and its loose legislative approach to oil drilling in the area, Haliburton, responsible for the mechanical upkeep of systems that failed, and Transocean, the drilling company hired by BP, largely avoid the ire of the public.  BP’s response has been massive, practically and financially, yet their efforts are all painted against the blame which is thrown at them.

The fact that public anger is concentrated on BP, and not others, may have something to do with the media response they put forward.  It terms of crisis communications they have acted quickly and succinctly, as can be seen from their online work.  But their words, coming from their spokesperson of choice, CEO Tony Hayward, have acted as a magnet for anger and distrust, not sympathy and understanding.  And the question, albeit unquantifiable, must be raised: how much has the performance of Hayward in the media contributed to the financial hammer blow? 1%, 5%, 10% (even at 1% we’re taking  lots of zeros)

It is ironic that Tony Hayward, a very capable CEO, has always been known for his aggressive approach to maintaining and raising safety standards.  His experience in the field of oil exploration and the industry as a whole is (or should be) beyond reproach.  But all that counts for little when dealing with a vengeful media, encouraged by a public baying for blood, feeding a crisis maelstrom.

Hayward - Good CEO, bad spokesperson?

The cleverest, most capable, experienced, sensible, respected, even honest, CEO is never necessarilycapable of dealing with a media storm.  Such circumstances tend to be way outside their comfort zone, in an environment normally way out of their control.  The angel of the boardroom may be adept at managing people, resources, time, finances and the market, but without considerable forethought, experience, and training in dealing with the media these management attributes will count for little, and may cost a lot.

Hayward has been castigated for his performance in the media – from wanting his life back, when 11 were killed in the initial tragedy, to claiming that the ocean is very big, when to locals that’s not quite the point.  There are many other examples, in which Hayward has added (excuse the pun) fuel to the fire.

CB3, having looked into Hayward’s background and career, has no doubt over the honourable intentions of BP’s Chief, but if CEOs, senior managers, subject matter experts and spokespeople are ever going to face the media under such an onslaught, preparation, practice, mentoring and extensive training are utterly vital.  Working your message (assuming you know what it is), reconnecting during interview, handing tangential issues, subtle bridging, persuasive techniques, linguistic dexterity – these are all cerebral actions which must be almost second-nature during the sparring of a harsh media interview, manifesting itself in a rapid mental obstacle course.  Speaking confidently at the annual AGM, providing lively and humourous dinner party chat amongst other titans of industry, eloquently arguing your case in the  boardroom – all good and well, but such attributes, whilst handy, will not enable the dynamics, strategy and tactics required of a crisis media interview (or any media interview, come to that). It is a different ball game, in a different ball park, in a different country.

In defending one’s reputation during a crisis, being seen to do the right thing is crucial but as Hayward has shown, words spoken in the media during a crisis can be very, very expensive, immediately and for a long time afterwards.


With recent claims from several quarters of the dangers of aid being mixed  with military operations and the UK’s coalition government, currently putting DfID through a thorough review,  dallying (or not) with bringing the two closer together, it is perhaps worthwhile spending a little time looking back at the short, but important, history of  ‘military humanitarianism’.

The words neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity pepper the pages of the manifestos, mandates and remits of humanitarian organizations and the volumes of academic and government discourse on humanitarianism.  Yet, since the debacle of Rwanda in 1994,  these classical core values have been under threat from a political ideal, that of ‘new humanitarianism’ which focuses upon a rights-based approach, as opposed to a needs-based one, is oriented towards long-term political goals of ‘liberal peace’, places humanitarianism within the ‘grey zone’ of a relief-development continuum, and is increasingly crowded with, supposedly integrated, political actors as it develops into a serious facet of international relations.  The Kosovo crisis exemplified, both good and bad, the practical manifestation of ‘new humanitarianism’, but it remains a feature of contemporary humanitarian relief operations.

However, the post-9/11 environment has encouraged the militarization of ‘new humanitarianism’ towards political and security objectives, further straining the core tenets of humanitarianism.

Three major themes can be identified.  Firstly, the public perception of the threat has changed, which has affected donorship; secondly, there came the ramifications of a new strand of political imperative, namely anti-terrorism and, thirdly, due to the nature of high profile conflicts, the conditions on the ground for humanitarian actors have been transformed, notably through the severe impact upon perceptions of neutrality and the hazards entailed.

Mixed up in more than just peacekeeping?

Generated by a sudden sense of threat, donations to appeals for humanitarian crises were curtailed post 9/11, especially in the US, because of the notion that such funds were in effect aiding populations in which a threat resided.[1] Further, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored the idea that the work of the US administration and humanitarian NGOs together ‘is now perceived to affect the national survival of the US’.[2] Donor security in the minds of the US administration and the public became enmeshed with humanitarianism, encouraging a degree of selectivity as to where or not such aid should be disbursed and consideration of conditionality if seen necessary to bolster that security.  Development aid has suffered a similar conflation.

US foreign policy, being at the forefront of the counter-terrorist agenda, dominated the foreign policy concerns of the West in general and therefore, to varying degrees, the humanitarian stance of the leading global donors.  Policy focused upon the threat of terrorism.  Like Kosovo, the promoters of major conflicts in this war, both the US and Atlanticist Europeans, have not shied from employing a humanitarian raison d’etre, mixing a political crisis with a supposed humanitarian one, motivated by political necessity

But the ‘with us or against us’ approach of such policy has taken the politicization of humanitarian aid, and the overt acknowledgement of it, to new heights.  Impartiality has long been under threat as the aid figures from the mid-to-late 1990s have demonstrated, indicating a strategic skew away from what might be termed ‘forgotten crises’, representing something of a dual-track composed of strategically important crises and those less so.  The very basis of the political imperative, centred on direct threats, has maintained such a strategic skew although shifting policy focus to new zones. This has had further profound implications for humanitarianism, not least for the basic tenets of neutrality and independence.

Afghanistan had long been seen as a protracted humanitarian crisis and therefore the humanitarian imperative could be more easily dovetailed into the political and military response to 9/11.  However, Iraq was much more contentious, with neutrality being compromised early on in the lead up to its invasion.  Many major NGOs, especially European ones, stated their opposition to the forthcoming war, their spokespersons not only commenting upon possible humanitarian scenarios but also their stance towards military action.  The historical tendency for US NGOs mostly to align themselves with the incumbent administration reduced such an anti-war tendency but was indicative of their already lower levels of neutrality.[3] The Europeans had shown that they could support military intervention on humanitarian grounds (see page 23) but their stance over Iraq illustrated their resistance to the conforming of humanitarianism to a political agenda.  However, the availability of massive aid funds and contracts after the war’s end resulted in a reverse swing in terms of effective, or perceived, allegiance. While many NGOs, including US ones, initially declared their unwillingness to receive Coalition funds for work in Iraq, many eventually agreed to accept such ‘partisan’ resources. As such, in Afghanistan and Iraq, many NGOs are no longer seen as independent agencies but rather as subcontractors or, as Colin Powell claimed, ‘force multipliers’[4], in the humanitarian field.[5] This perception enhances the notion of the privatization and militarization of humanitarianism.

Mixed up in more than just humanitarian relief?

The counter-terrorism agenda has raised further some significant questions regarding humanitarian policy.  Many decry the merging of humanitarian policy with international security policy, even though it has been largely recognized that development and security are intertwined, with the former suffering due to a lack of the latter.[6] But the new post 9/11 security environment has led to a much wider interpretation, leading to accusations that the humanitarian motives of donor governments and institutions have been hijacked by the underlying needs of their political and security agendas.

The post 9/11 environment has further encouraged the drive, apparent since the late 1990s, towards an integrated approach to crises, exemplified by the UN’s Brahimi Report of 2000 which formalized a coherent approach to crisis management, endorsing the ‘integration agenda’ whereby diplomatic, military, political and humanitarian elements would work to meet the same objectives.  Further, the use of force, or even a benign military involvement in crisis response, has raised the spectre of humanitarian agencies operating, or being perceived to operate, alongside belligerents, with obvious concerns arising over the security of those humanitarian agencies.

Western governments that are involved in the war on terror agenda are also the main financiers of humanitarian funds.  In this they do have leverage over humanitarian agencies and NGOs, which, at bottom, are resource-driven and compelled to search for funds, and to a degree over humanitarian policy.

Whereas Kosovo exhibited ‘new humanitarianism’ employing extensive military means, the last decade’s counter-terror agenda has been claimed as the harbinger of true ‘military humanitarianism’, on the back of political and security concerns.

Of note is the fact that while discourse around the subject of military humanitarianism was energetic during the first few years of this millenium, sparked by Iraq and Afghanistan, that conversation has waned over the last few years.  But a quick examination of ongoing conflicts involving both military and  humanitarian activities reveals that ‘military humanitarianism’ continues, for good and bad.


[1] http://hwproject.tufts.edu/new/pdf/minear-arden.pfd , p. 4.

[2] Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator, cited in Stoddard, A. Humanitarian NGOs: Challenges and Trends London: Humanitarian Policy Group (Overseas Development Institute), July 2003, p. 5.

[3] Rieff, D. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis London: Vintage, 2002, pp. 234-5.

[4] And I want you to know that I have made it clear to my staff here and to all our ambassadors around the world that I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.’ US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, 26 October 2001.

[5] Nickolls, J. Limits to Neutrality in Iraq Humanitarian Exchange No 25, December 2003.  (pp. 7-9)

[6] Duffield, M. Global Governance and the New Wars London: Zed Books, 2001.