When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.
But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b) if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove. Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.
Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum. Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services. As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so. Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.
Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations. And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media. If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.
The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media. Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization. By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.
Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call. But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis. By this time it may be too late to consider training.
Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.
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.
The Inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium
9-10 June 2010
Venue: Defence Academy of United Kingdom
“Winning the communications war: new thinking and new practice ”
The battle for ideas, hearts and minds is back in centre stage in twenty first century military operations. Experience in engaging the local populace in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that well-executed public communications are critical to shaping operational and strategic outcomes. As a result, ad-hoc approaches to military PR are giving way to deliberate strategies developed using innovative planning approaches and supported by analysis and effects monitoring techniques. New cross-disciplinary thinking is emerging from both academia and government, focused on coordinating and maximising the power of messaging in counter- insurgency, anti-terrorism and global security. A revolution in military communications is underway, transforming the way governments and militaries communicate. Against this backdrop the Defence Academy is presenting the inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium. A networking forum for stakeholders from across the communications spectrum, this new symposium is designed to showcase cutting edge thinking alongside innovative tools and techniques.
Over two days, the tactical, operational and strategic aspects of communication will be explored: Identifying best practice in recent Media Operations; developing supporting theory for the emerging discipline of Strategic Communications; examining new approaches to both Media Operations and Strategic Communications and application to current conflicts. The current operational context in Afghanistan is of special interest and raises a number of questions which the symposium will explore, for example: How can strategic communication objectives be pursued whilst working in a media environment with shortened time horizons and intense tactical engagement? How can two way models of communication be adopted and accommodated within the new information environment? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of competing media and information strategies in Afghanistan? What is the role of local media in Afghanistan?
For further details Contact Caroline Dawson on:
T: +44(0) 1793 785268
or visit the website http://www.symposiaatshrivenham.com
The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election.
Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests. It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe. The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000). The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.
The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public. Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US. Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public. Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.
The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months. Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.
These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.
The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.
IS THE PUBLIC INTEREST UNDER THREAT?
MEDIA POLICY RESPONSES TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR RECESSION IN EUROPE
Symposium jointly organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), University of Westminster, and the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA)
Date: 2 October, 2009
Venue: University of Westminster, Regent Str Campus, 309 Regent Str, London W1B 2UW
In virtually every European country, the private media sector is suffering intense economic pressure from the cyclical downturn in advertising and the structural shift of advertising revenue to the web. As a result, corporations are pursuing every avenue to exploit new and existing means of generating revenue, and of maximising the potential of digitalisation. This is having a direct impact on the policy making process at both national and supranational levels as governments and regulatory agencies are coming under increasing pressure to restrict new initiatives in the public sector, to apply the strictest possible criteria to publicly funded media organizations, and to relax overall regulatory oversight of the private sector.
This symposium will seek to bring together scholars and regulators from around Europe to discuss the nature of new policy initiatives being canvassed or implemented, and their repercussions for promoting (or foreclosing) the public interest. Topics of particular interest include, but are not limited to:
· Means of exploiting the “public” to alleviate pressures on the “private” (partnership deals, sharing proceeds of public funding etc.)
· Limits on expansion or interpretation of public service broadcaster remits
· Circumscribing funding opportunities for Public Service Media (PSM)
· Proposals to change or reduce advertising controls or restrictions
· Relaxing restrictions on concentration of ownership
· Proposals to change or relax cross-ownership regimes at local, regional or national levels
· Initiatives and responses at the EU level
There will be three themed sessions and one plenary session consisting of two keynote speakers. The precise themes will depend on abstracts received, but are provisionally designated as
i. relaxation of regulatory regimes and potential consequences
ii. pressures on PSBs and regimes of public funding
iii. ownership, consolidation and threats to pluralism
The model for this symposium will be short position papers of no more than 10 minutes in length designed to prompt cross-national discussion and debate. Our objective is to promote a better understanding of how governments and regulators within Europe are responding to the inevitable pressure to accommodate the private sector, and perhaps to anticipate some of the consequences. The emphasis will therefore be on discussion and exchange.
Our intention is then to select around 10 papers to be written up for an edited collection arising out of the symposium.
PROGRAMME AND REGISTRATION
The symposium will take place from 9.30 to 5.30 on Friday, October 2nd. There will be three sessions consisting of concurrent panels and one plenary session.
Online registration will open in September 2009.
DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS
Abstracts (between 300 and 500 words) addressing one or more of the above topics, and including a brief set of questions posed by the proposed paper, should be emailed in Word-format to <Journalism@wmin.ac.uk <mailto:Journalism@wmin.ac.uk> > by Monday July 6th, 2009. Each abstract must include the presenter’s name, affiliation, email and postal address, together with the title of the paper and a brief biographical note on the presenter.
The selection committee will comprise members of CAMRI’s Policy Group and ECREA’s Communication Law & Policy Group. Applicants will be advised by the end of July 2009 of the outcome of their submissions.
More information will be available in due time on the conference websites:
Heard from Basra: “What on Earth were the British doing here? Wasting their time, wasting their money and wasting their lives.” Not CB’s words, but sentiments expressed by the people of Basra, passed on by a senior and highly regarded BBC correspondent who has spent years reporting from the streets of Iraq. (for the original audio – Radio 4 Today programme at 0738 on 30 Apr 2009)
The British Army is leaving Iraq – an Army steeped in tradition and arguably recognised as one of the best fighting forces in the world. It is, by and large, well respected and has an admirable and solid reputation. Only last summer, IPSOS-Mori polling gave an 80% favourable or mainly favourable (UK only) to the question “How favourable or unfavourable are your opinions and impressions of the British Army?” Fine stuff indeed, and fully endorsed by CB3.
However, reputation is a fickle entity and never guaranteed, no matter how strong your ‘brand’.
The line has often been used that the difficulties and struggles faced by the British military have been caused by politicians (the Labour government) who have sent them on unsuitable missions, under-resourced and often out-gunned. The concept of serious problems within the Army, are not new, as Newsnight’s September 07 programme ‘Broken Army’ proves. And Deep Cut, Royal Navy Iranian hostages, with its own media debacle (not Army but still people in uniform), and abuses of Iraqi prisoners, have also raised eyebrows (putting it mildly!), here and internationally. However, recent media coverage, such as Stephen Grey’s Dispatches – Afghanistan: Mission Impossible?, and several print articles have further eluded to failures within the military itself. While Con Coughlin concedes that the damage to the Army’s reputation is real, albeit of government making, Christopher Brooker is particularly forthright:
“The British Army had entered Iraq in 2003 with a reputation as ”the most professional in the world’’. Six years later it will leave, having failed to fulfil any of its allotted tasks and having earned the contempt of the Iraqis and the Americans after one of our most humiliating defeats in history.”
Now, of course, headlines and op-eds and the occasional documentary do not automatically reflect genuine public opinion but let’s look at a hypothetical timeline over the next eighteen months:
- American money pours into the south of Iraq, infrastructure improves – Narrative in Basra: ‘It’s getting much better now the Americans are here’, possibly reading as ‘the British Army failed’.
- Afghanistan remains slow progress, but the Obama administration wants a good foreign policy win, and points to Iraq – Narrative in the US: ‘We’re suceeding in Basra’ i.e ‘where the British Army failed’.
- Maliki wants to capitalise on sucess in Basra – Narrative:, with American support, the Iraqi government is improving the lives of Baswaris’, read as ‘where the British Army couldn’t’
- Domestically, the Conservatives, wishing to win marginal seats in garrison towns during the general election (remember this is hypothetical), make a campaign push on defence – Narrative ‘We will rebuild a ‘broken Army’, read as ‘the Army is broken’.
- Overall narrative: ‘The broken British Army failed in Iraq’. And a sustained narrative like this may well affect public opinion.
Okay, so that;s all hypothetical, but the point here is, regardless of a failure to resource the Army for its mission and the fact that any chance of success in Iraq was also down to several government agencies who do not wear combat uniform, under the circumstances above, the Army, the most visible of British involvement, may end up taking the hit long after they have withdrawn. The US Army took a generation to really get over the damage that Vietnam did to its reputation, despite its many successes (i.e. the massive Tet offensive was successfully repelled, effectively a massive US victory but was seen as a PR disaster).
CB3’s hope and hunch is that this won’t happen for the British Army. But a recent conversation with a retired British Lieutenant-Colonel, who could not ever see circumstances in which the Army’s reputation would be tarnished, got CB3 thinking. That well earned reputation is not guaranteed, and must be attended to just as much after the event (Iraq) as during it. Resting, literally, on laurels just won’t cut it.
Further, there are lessons here for others. Let’s not forget, other militaries are appearing to limp home from Iraq. They have reputations to think about too.
In short: they can and do but, as they say, it ain’t necessarily so.
The Information Operations and Influence Activity (IOIA) Symposium, held this week at UK’s Defence Academy, threw up several enticing cerebral teasers, not least the tension between two schools of thought regarding public affairs (or as the Brits say ‘media operations’). On the one hand, it is claimed by the old guard that public affairs (PA) merely informs (as can be found in US doctrine). On the other, the young turks would have it that information is never value-free and therefore PA will always have an element of influence to it.
As much as CB3 would like to subscribe to the former, the brute force of reality must indicate the latter to be the case. Even at a most simple level, if one stubbornly keeps to transmitting utterly ‘true’ facts and figures, claiming to only inform – the mere selection of which facts to reveal introduces a bias, and therefore a degree of sway or influence, even unconsciously.
This raises a further question, one broached at IOIA. If journalists live and die by their adherence to seeking the truth, informing not influencing and unbiased reporting, can they so easily transfer themselves into roles which are inherently partisan, promotional and influencing? There is well documented tension between the arenas of public relations and the media (although they provide each other with vital life support) – using a market analogy, they are at opposite ends of the supply-demand equation.
Many journalists make the jump to PR, some very successfully, others less so – it may be their contact books which are in demand rather than their prowess as flacks. Equally, many journalists are employed by vitally important reserve military forces (especially in the UK) as public affairs/media operations officers. Many are consummate operators in both journalism and PA, proving mental dexterity, but is it time to question the seemingly automatic assumption that a journalist will be a natural candidate for PA, or wider communication, duties?
This is no way reflects upon the crucial media and PA capability that the reserve forces provide, supplying resources which often are unavailable from the regular forces.