P.R. Lessons From the Pentagon | Wall Street Journal | 04.01.03

As bombs drop and bullets fly, the global media has turned a growing part of its coverage of the Iraqi war to the subject it knows best — itself. But as the war thickens, the embedded reporters will continue to be a brilliant strategy by the Pentagon — one that should echo in the rules of corporate communications.

The first two days of the war were filled with bracing live reports from speeding tank columns and aircraft carriers as they launched sorties in the Persian Gulf. Seeing the admiring accounts, commentators unanimously announced that embedding reporters in military units had been an act of public-relations genius. But when the U.S. and U.K. troops started taking casualties, things turned testy, quickly.

By Monday, questioning at the Pentagon’s daily briefing was accusatory. The next day the New York Times noted a “quick end to the honeymoon” and headlined “Reporting Reflects Increase in Anxiety Virtually Overnight.” Talk arose of, as one op-ed writer put it, the “enormous gamble” the Pentagon took in allowing all that coverage.

The media covering itself covering the war started to become like a roundup moment on the McLaughlin Group, “Who won the week?” or in this case, the day, or even the last few hours. All of a sudden, the coalition media strategy started to look like a failure.

Hardly. The administration’s entire wartime approach to the media shows a highly sophisticated understanding of communications strategy — call it competitive communications. It is not like crisis communication, when a plane has gone down or an accounting irregularity discovered. Nor is it precisely like a political campaign, which is basically an extended debate over the interpretation of widely accepted facts. It’s more like the dynamics of a company facing a mass tort lawsuit, or charges from anti-global activists, or a long-running regulatory battle pitting industry players against one another. When a crippling public relations battle looms, the first issue is not who spins best, gets the best stories and wins the week. The issue is who becomes the standard of truth.

Think of this in the terms we confront every day in peacetime, where an executive finds himself on the defensive side of a smear campaign. Branded as a “big corporation” (even when big corporations are on the other side), the company (say, Nike, or Microsoft) starts with little or no media or public credibility. Its adversary is assumed to be truthful, even though it is not.

By the time the company can publicize that the other side was lying, coverage has moved on and barely a retraction appears in the press. Soon the weight of public disapproval begins to take its toll. Politicians and editorialists ask when the CEO is going to clean up his mess. Debate about whether there is actually a mess has become useless. The other side has seized its early advantage to establish itself as the standard of truth.

The U.S. and British governments began in precisely this position in Iraq. Media support was doubtful, at best. Many overseas reporters, not to mention Vietnam-generation ones in the U.S., were unprepared to believe anything coming out of Washington. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein was preparing to stage atrocities and blame them on coalition forces or to claim major military setbacks for the allies. With the allies enjoying no benefit of any doubt, he stood an excellent chance of succeeding. His goal: Vietnam on fast-forward, that is, a rapid collapse of media and U.S.-U.K. popular support for the war effort and international isolation of Messrs. Bush and Blair.

As the Pentagon has demonstrated so aptly, the essential strategy for becoming the standard of truth when no one believes you is to open your operations to the kind of risk that no one would take if he were planning to lie. Spin is out of the question. Good or bad, the story is there for the reporter to see. In a company criticized for, say, global labor practices, this would mean opening overseas factories to unscheduled media visits. In this war, it means embedded reporters.

That yesterday’s stories from the front had bad news, and the day before’s good, has no bearing on the success or failure of the Pentagon’s approach to media. What is important is that there is no way to sustain claims of atrocities when journalists are traveling with the troops or to claim that an offensive has been stalled when it is not. Meanwhile, Iraqi troops can see on their own televisions that more than sand is in the storm descending upon them. Against the odds, the coalition perspective has become the unchallenged standard of truth. It counts as the first major victory of the war in Iraq.

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