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Published in News from the Front, Jul-Aug 97, by the Center for Army Lessons Learned.


by CPT James E. Hutton, Military Analyst, CALL

Installation public affairs (PA) offices are the "first-line of attack" in most daily contacts with the community and media. To maximize the Army's ability to keep the American public informed about its many complex functions, media relations officers must become more innovative in delivering meaningful information about our great force. The ideas discussed here are based on experiences garnered from the National Training Center's public affairs office at Fort Irwin, CA, and are designed to help bring focus to media relations officers and others who deal with civilian news media representatives as they assemble information plans and execute media events. And, despite our focus here on installation activities, the principles discussed are applicable during deployments.


The Army PA, like that of the sister services, is charged with making available "timely and accurate information so that the public, Congress and members of the press, radio and television may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy."1 This guidance from the Department of Defense's Principles of Information stems from involvement in Vietnam and more recent conflicts. It reflects the will of the department's senior leadership to provide accurate and forthright information about military activities without exaggeration, misinformation, and deception. The military simply does not withhold potentially damaging or embarrassing information.

The military has more than lived up to this claim. Indeed, while the intentions of this policy are requisite for a military program in a free society, we must make use of our PA system to fully report not only on our relatively few shortcomings but also on our many achievements. As an example, in the events surrounding the exposure of the Army's so-called "sex-scandal" in late 1996, virtually the entire PA community mobilized to address the issue with local media outlets. (It should be noted that a "scandal" usually means the uncovering of a secret after an attempt to hide details. The media in this case did not discover this situation -- they heard it from the Chief of Staff of the Army directly.) Details of the action plan were fully laid out for public consumption.2 Leaders rightly stated the Army's policy of zero tolerance.3 A chain-teaching plan was detailed.4 Broadcasters and print journalists alike were given daily briefings and updates. In short, the Army's message got out; we showed an ability to address a bad situation rapidly and well.

We must maximize our efforts aimed at telling the myriad of things our Army is doing right today. There are many stories to tell.


The reason(s) for the reluctance of some PA practitioners and commanders to be innovative and relate positive information is difficult to quantify. It may stem from a number of possible factors, one of which is the guarding against propagandizing. (There are a number of other possibilities such as a commander's aversion to the news media or limited PA assets). The Principles of Information forbid the use of propaganda: "Propaganda has no place in Department of Defense PA programs."5 Propaganda in this context is defined as "information, rumors, etc., deliberately spread to help a person, group, movement . . ."6 Such an effort would have as its chief component an element of deception. Widening the scope of PA efforts is not only NOT engaging in deceit or propagandizing, it is fully complying with the commander's intent to make information "fully and readily available."7

Moreover, the idea that positive information is somehow propaganda misses the guidance clearly set forth in Field Manual 46-1, Public Affairs Operations: "The active release of complete and accurate information influences the perception of events, clarifies public understanding and frames the public debate. It preempts attempts to misrepresent situations."8

And, while our efforts are not exactly like a business marketing program, we should recognize a key lesson learned by professional marketers: "The fact is, even your most faithful customers will forget you if you don't remind them of how great you are."9

Further, such an effort does not infer an attempt to control the media. The Army PA, for apparent reasons, cannot allow itself to devolve into spin control. Efforts at manipulation have occurred in the past. During the Vietnam War, for example, "the M(ilitary) A(ssistance) C(ommand) V(ietnam) . . . develop(ed) a 'hard-head' list of reporters it considered 'worst cases' of reporters who engaged in exaggerated or erroneous reporting,"10 in an obvious endeavor to control the media. Such attempts at control are not only fruitless, they run counter to the Constitutional principles we uphold.


So how does a practitioner develop and execute plans for innovatively telling the whole story without propagandizing? In creating plans for events and programs, as well as long-term or ongoing efforts, build from the ground up. Construct the foundation using available data-base technology and continuity information from existing files. Prepare command messages and conduct rehearsals for media encounters. In addition, the practitioner must interest the media in events and projects that we know are important to the Army and for the public to know. And, most significantly, we must get a definition of successful PA operations in much the same fashion as we do for all other military operations.


As media relations officers, we must develop the base structure to fully develop our knowledge of the media outlets in our area of operations. We should take the widest view possible of the potential audiences for telling the Army story. As an example, a program known as "Amazing America" on cable television's The Learning Channel, was in need of programming that told a story, as the title suggests, about America. The program's producers, made fully aware of the National Training Center (NTC)'s mission through numerous phone calls, faxes, film products and a site visit, came to the conclusion that the NTC was perfect for their purposes for a 30-minute episode.11 The program subsequently aired to millions of viewers.

Developing the base:

TTP: Develop a data base which includes e-mail addresses and web sites of the various media outlets, fax numbers, and points of contact. This data is important in forming the structure of the data base but that is only part of the process. Such lists, while useful, require constant updating -- not unlike the improvement of a defensive position. Working the lists is essential to successful implementation of ongoing and future projects.

By working the lists, the practitioner routinely calls or contacts the primary outlets and just as importantly constantly seeks out new outlets.

TTP: Consider sending cover letters and pre-packaged material, such as video products, special edition newspapers, and visitor's guides, to a broad range of targeted local, regional and national media outlets. Often, periodicals with seemingly no apparent interest in military matters will see something in your packet that is useful for coverage.

Examples include the following: city and county newsletters, scientific journals, documentary writers, and producers of various types (in consultation with the Chief of Army Public Affairs - Los Angeles Branch), special interest publications, and business magazines.12 Added to that list are daily newspapers and television affiliates apart from the local installation's normal interest area that may have interests in projects not previously considered.

This effort is endless. There are thousands of media sources, most of which have a constant need for storylines. It is important to note that many of the publications and electronic outlets have very little knowledge of military matters. Coach them along; develop interest where there may have been none before. Make a strong effort toward providing opportunities for media to participate in events to the fullest extent allowable by law and good sense. You may think your three-day MLRS live-fire is business as usual, but the public-at-large may be seeing the sky ignited by streaking rockets for the first time.


Combat organizations do routine things routinely. Preparing for combat or for PA activities requires many of the same elements. Develop a plan. Rehearse the plan. Execute the plan. But as we well know, working the details of the plan is the crux of staff work -- and that is where the hard work begins.

Command messages lay the ground work for PA activities.

TTP: Without command messages that are clear, known to all in the command, and user-friendly (i.e., soldier-friendly), media encounters are haphazard at best and disastrous at worst. (Imagine a direct support field artillery battalion without a fire support plan, and you can envision encountering the media without command messages.)

Good organizations rehearse all aspects of the plan.

TTP: Rehearsing for media encounters does not mean planting untruths or spins. Provide soldiers command messages and teach them to "stay in their lane." Also provide a list of potential questions with correct and meaningful information. This technique will serve our soldiers and ultimately the public well. The exercise of allowing soldiers to hear questions that may be asked in a non-threatening, scenario-based rehearsal will enable the soldiers to think about answers. It also allows leaders to discern potential problems with operational security. Perhaps more importantly, such rehearsals emphasize in the minds of junior soldiers that media interviews are work -- and should be seen as an event that can support the mission.

Leaders require rehearsal as well. Leaders at all levels generally have more information available to them and can lend a broader perspective. Provide leaders the command messages in advance of rehearsals, and subsequently interview them with potential questions. Rehearsals of this nature will aid the leader and the media interviewer. Evaluate each answer in the rehearsal for clarity, correctness, infusion of command messages, and sufficient detail. Do not forget operational security.

Leaders should think clearly about what they want the public to know and be intent on conveying a defined message. Consider the media lesson learned by General (Ret.) Colin Powell:

"More lessons in the care and feeding of the media. You do not have to answer every question put to you. They get to pick the questions. But you get to pick the answers. And I learned the hard way . . . to aim beyond the audience of one who is asking the question. Shape your answer, instead, to the audience of millions who will be watching the tube."13

Execution of the plan is vital.

TTP: When executing the plan, that is escorting the media to various soldiers and leaders (to include civilians), adherence to the principles of information should be balanced with operational requirements (such as time constraints) and, as always, operational security. The individual needs of the media visitors must never become the overriding factor in the execution of the plan.


The idea of "getting the media out" often leads to nothing if specific plans and expectations are not detailed. Sending untargeted invitations, creating unfocused "media days," and poorly articulating potentially interesting and useful ideas for the various media outlets are common shortcomings when trying to entice media visits.

Print journalists' needs:

TTP: Print media are reliant on interviews. Unless specific personnel are sought, provide knowledgeable, rehearsed soldiers who are fully cognizant of command messages. Although many media members will want to interview the most junior soldiers (there is a feeling among many reporters that junior soldiers are more honest) the PA practitioner, aware of the writer's angle, is better able to decide an interview list than is the media. For example, if the storyline sought by the writer is "Army Readiness," an Army corporal is not equipped to give answers broad enough in perspective to adequately address the issue.

Electronic media needs:

TTP: While also reliant on interviews, electronic media needs quality visuals. Locate interviews in places that emphasize the points of the command messages or the level of importance of the interview.

Most electronic media are equipped with Beta cameras and editing suites. High-quality video products from your archives in Beta format will often be useful for media outlets in preparation for the evening news. Provide tailored products for the outlet and subject matter being discussed. Consider providing stock footage (known as "B-roll") of training or equipment that the media may not be able to get on their own.

Finally, as the PA representative of the installation or unit, tell the media why readers or viewers will find what the units are doing is worth reading or seeing. As mentioned before, many in the media have little or no knowledge of military matters. While the media is the conduit to the public, it is important to remember that we must first educate the news media to properly get our message out. The media, of course, will decide in the end what will be published or broadcast, but the PA officer can greatly influence the final product by properly educating and teaching members of the press.

As a part of the effort described above in preparing for the media, the reliability of the media is worth considering when coordinating interviews or events. The PA practitioner must maintain credibility with commanders and soldiers -- make sure their time is well spent.


Combat arms commanders routinely define success for the operational plan. An operations order requiring "destruction" of the enemy clearly defines what "destruction" means. Public affairs annexes to operations orders and installation-level memoranda of instruction can, and in the future must, have similar guidance.

Defining success for the PA community is a new concept. Today, few commanders would see success as no media coverage during a particular event. While avoiding the media was once a goal, leaders now must see media encounters as opportunities to tell their story. Commanders must articulate success and PA practitioners execute.

Clearly articulate success.

TTP: First, ensure the entire command is aware of the command messages and has sufficient information to interact with visiting media. This can be verified during scheduled rehearsals coordinated by the PA officer. Commanders understand the military importance of conducting combat rehearsals. Conduct rehearsals for PA events in much the same fashion. Bring in all potential players (usually interviewees), wargame possible scenarios, conduct practice interviews, and evaluate the rehearsal.

Second, consider the magnitude of the event. If the event is the Advanced Warfighting Experiment, sending invitations to major publications and electronic outlets is in order. For a local post change of command, tailor the invitation list accordingly. Assuming the event is properly evaluated for importance, target the types of media that should visit from various markets.

Consider the following:


Do not lose sight of the goal of thoroughly informing the public. Properly target outlets using your media lists and contacts. Assist the command in assessing outcomes.

Beyond event planning, most installations have many ongoing operations that would be of interest to local, regional, and potentially national media. Events, such as live-fire training, ARTEPs, small deployments, and newly instituted programs can often be used as storylines.

Establish a program to systematically invite local and other media by looking around your installation for things that are routinely done well. As an example, a post hospital may have instituted a new baby-care program -- such a program may appeal to the human interest segment of the local paper. Deployment of a new piece of equipment during a live-fire exercise may be attractive to a scientific journal. The possibilities are endless and cannot be exhausted.

Educate soldiers and leaders about the positive aspects of a well-informed public. Assist them by developing useful command messages, potential questions and answers, and exacting rehearsals. And, ensure the concept of "staying in your lane" is thoroughly understood.

Finally, to fully realize the potential of PA to positively affect the Army, commanders at various levels must recognize that staffing and equipment of installation PA offices influences outcomes. A trained and logistically supported PA team provides tremendous "bang for the buck."

Just as the sign at the gate entering the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA, promises "World Class Training for the World's Best Army," PA officers should feel compelled to tell the world about their great force. We have proven to the public that we do not hide our troubles -- and the public has come to expect that. Now we must do equally well at relating our force's successes.


1 Department of Defense Principles of Information, December 1, 1983.

2 U.S. Army News Release, No. 96-82, "Army Announces Sexual Harassment Panel and Inspector General Review," November 22, 1996.

3 Susan Walden, "Sexual Harassment: Army's Stance Remains 'Zero Tolerance'," Army Link News (originally published in the Hessen Herald, March 17, 1997).

4 Gerry J. Gilmore, "Sexual Harassment Prevention Chain - Teaching Packets Enroute to Field," Army Link News, January 29, 1997.

5 Department of Defense Principles of Informtion, December 1, 1983.

6 Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Gramercy Books, 1989), pg. 1152.

7 Department of Defense Principles of Information, December 1, 1983.

8 Field Manual 46-1, Public Affairs Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, May 30, 1997), pg. 18.

9 Lesley Alderman, Karen Cheney, "Smart Ways to Make $100,000 at Home," Money Magazine, May 1997, pg. 155.

10 William M. Hammond, Public Affairs, The Military and The Media, 1962-1968 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 322.

11 The Learning Channel, "Amazing America," Episode Subject: National Training Center Opposing Force. Original air date, February 25, 1997.

12 One example includes an article that appeared in a business periodical concerned with management styles and methods: Richard Pascale, "Fight, Learn, Lead," Fast Company, Aug-Sep 96, pgs. 65-72. The article, written about the Army's Combat Training Center's method for experiential learning, was crafted by the author to fit the magazine's focus.

13 Colin L. Powell (with Joseph E. Perisco), My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), pg. 372.