March 28, 2003
by Katie Delahaye Paine
The current war has been called the best-covered war in history, and certainly the visuals and reports from “embedded” reporters have been spectacular, bringing war into our living rooms like never before. Whatever we might think about the causes of this war (or the Bush administration’s bumbling efforts to present them to the press*), this is a brilliant strategy and could well change the face of PR forever. Certainly it is as significant a development as the introduction of VNRs was 20 years ago.
An Iraqi man waves as he greets U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 70 Armor attached to 3rd Brigade Combat team. REUTERS/Peter Andrews
After less than desirable coverage during Desert Storm and disastrous coverage of Mogadishu, the Department of Defense learned from its mistakes: “No comment” is the wrong answer. So, starting with the war in Afghanistan, the army began opening its kimono more and more to the media.
And the embedded reporter tactic is sheer genius. Most journalists go into their profession because they want to know what’s really going on behind the scenes. And there’s nothing that brings out the lust for behind-the-scenes knowledge like a war.
Taking reporters from behind the lines and putting them on the front lines was an offer the media couldn’t resist. They went through the basic training and are now reporting back from within the armed forces.
A U.S. Marine assists an injured Iraqi prisoner of war in the port town of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. Photo Tam McDonald, Pool/Reuters
The sagacity of the tactic is that it is based on the basic tenet of public relations: It’s all about relationships. The better the relationship any of us has with a journalist, the better the chance of that journalist picking up and reporting our messages.
So now we have journalists making dozensif not hundredsof new friends among the armed forces. And, if the bosses of their new-found buddies want to get a key message or two across about how sensitive the U.S. is being to humanitarian needs or how humanely they are treating Iraqis, what better way than through these embedded journalists? As a result, most (if not all) of the dozens of stories being filed contain key messages the Department of Defense wants to communicate.
Army General Tommy Franks (L), commander of the U.S. led forces, briefs reporters during a press conference in the media center at Central Command's forward headquarters, Camp As Sayliyah, outside Doha, Qatar March 24, 2003. Photo by Tim Aubry/Reuters
The truth is, it’s a win-win situation. We are getting more and better coverage of war than ever before, journalists are getting better access than ever before and the coalition is getting more messages across than ever before.
You may well ask: “So what? If I’m trying to push widgets, why does this in any way affect how I do my job?” Think about it: How many CEOs have we had to deal with who consistently made the same mistake that the army made in Somalia: Deny access to the facts, repeat “No comment,” and hide their heads in the sand.
And while we would like to think that we’ve enlightened more CEOs and taken our seat at the table in more corporations, there are still dozens of organizations for which PR means “Prevent Reporting.” Now we have a perfect case study of why and how it’s so much better to be honest with the press.
The lesson here is the same for business as it is for the military: Treat reporters as human beings, train them, give them access, let them develop the relationships—and chances are good you’ll get your messages across.
* Not one of 423 international PR professionals surveyed recently believed that the Bush administration’s Iraq crisis PR efforts were credible. Four percent of those polled said the Iraqi PR campaign was trustworthy. Respondents were less skeptical of the UN, with 32 percent agreeing that UN PR has been credible. Source: PRWeek UK
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