Some Things Never Change (and They Should)

Much discussion lately on our Army Public Affairs Association Facebook page about two stories concerning the Army and its relationship with the media. One is a Sept. 25 People magazine article about female Soldiers undergoing Ranger training, and response to it from the Army’s Chief of Public Affairs. The other concerns a New York Times article Sept. 29 reporting that, “Two top Army generals recently discussed trying to kill an article in The New York Times on concussions at West Point by withholding information … ” 

Both cases present much opportunity to learn very old lessons. I have seen this kind of thing happen time and again over the 40-plus years I have been around the business. Somebody produces a story somewhere that makes the Army look bad, and leadership’s first, gut reaction is to go on the defensive. Most every time we see that response rolled into the media’s coverage. The media will always have the upper hand as the righteous indignation of a senior Army leader ducks the media or hedges his answers to straightforward questions. That, in turn, lends still more doubt about what the Army says the facts are about the original story in the first place.

We all have our own issues with how the two articles read, and with how the Army is responding. Personally, I think the response is overall reactive, not proactive. It comes off sounding defensive, and is now part of the stories, which otherwise might well have begun to wane by now. All that is being discussed at length on Facebook. It’s not my purpose here to rehash those “military and the media relationship” prognostications. 

Instead, and apart from that, I wonder what effect all this has on our most important audience, the Soldiers, employees, families, retirees, and, others of the internal audience. What effect do things like this do to their perception of the Army's credibility? What do they think when they read that the Ranger course is rigged so women can complete it, or that Army medics are fudging facts on head injuries? Most important, how are they answering questions about that from their families, friends and neighbors who read those articles?

 The Soldier, Army employee, even retirees carry a lot of source credibility with the people they know. It’s one thing to read about something on a website or hear about it on CNN. But, human nature being what it is, most people can be expected to base judgement and opinion of the Army on what the Soldier they know tells them. To that end, how good a job does the Army do in keeping its people – who are its chief spokespersons, after all – informed about the issues of the day?

With that in mind, as a student at Army Management Staff College, I wrote a paper many years ago entitled, “Tell Soldiers First.” I took as my premise what then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis J. Reimer used as his E-Mail sign-off: “Soldiers Are Our Credentials.”

In that paper, I wrote that one of the best ways to preclude misinformation and misperceptions in situations like this is to keep your internal audiences informed as a matter of habit. This needs to be done early about incidents that may affect them. Whenever possible, this should be done prior to informing the news media and general public. 

Why? 

Because, soldiers, employees, family members and other internal audiences are your best messengers.

I quoted in my paper from the “Crisis Communications Guide” published by the Army in January 1999. In addition to informing internal audiences first, the guide suggested other steps leaders can take to empower their people. I believe these are more relevant today with the prevalence of social media platforms available now.

- Encourage your internal audiences to participate in communication efforts and to act as advocates by informing them early in the information sharing process.

- Capitalize on the trust and credibility our internal audiences have with their friends, family and the American public. For example, as their friends and neighbors learn about the crisis, they will naturally ask soldiers and employees for more information. Keep in the mind that these questions will come up at church, sports practice and the grocery store.

- Encourage soldiers, retirees and employees to be your command’s spokespersons at meetings and at organizations with which they are affiliated or other outreach efforts. Provide these employees with the appropriate tools to be effective – such as key messages, information and training.

I have to smile every time something happens that makes me realize the thrust of this guide remains as current today as ever: We must do a better job of proactively telling the Army story in our own internal media. 

Don Carr

Don is a retired Army Public Affairs professional who served more than 40 years as a Soldier and Army civilian in positions from unit and installation level to the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.