CommCore Blog and News

The Communications Conundrum Exposed: The Need To Know vs. The Need To Say No

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The recent memo from U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to his colleagues at the Pentagon on how to interact with the media comes as no surprise in the wake of the forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of American and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. (Full text of the memo at: http://politi.co/8XIPZ9.)

Gates recognized that “appropriate” news media access to “many aspects” of Department of Defense information is important. He noted that “consistent with applicable laws and procedures, we are obliged to ensure that the information provided to [the media] is timely, accurate, credible and consistent.” This is the same Department of Defense that so expertly “embedded” reporters during Gulf and Iraq conflicts. Both of these controlled and coordinated efforts produced very positive coverage of the US led operations, and have spurred internal debate within the journalism community as well.

Gates also chastised DOD for growing “lax in how we engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures.” He added, “We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformed from the perspective of those most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra- agency policy, processes and activities.” Among his directives: a stern reminder that all media engagements and statements must be cleared first through DOD Public Affairs.

The Gates memo cuts to the heart of the communications challenge faced every day by professional communicators in large organizations (and occasionally in 4 person offices) about striking the right balance about what and when to provide information and answer questions – and who is authorized to be a spokesperson. Gates is trying to suggest that there will be consequences for continued public discussion about military decisions and policies. This is a difficult tight-rope to walk in a democracy and it’s almost impossible to keep dissent inside conference rooms and on a secure phone.

Gates’ memo adds to the ongoing saga communications debates that started with controversial comments attributed to Gen. McChrystal and his staff by the Rolling Stone reporter who wrote “The Runaway General.” This is the “other side of the coin” discussion, with journalists asking about their role when they learn of sensitive information in time of war.

At CommCore, we advise our clients to make sure their organization’s philosophy on transparency and the communications policies, designated spokespersons, and guidelines and practices are clearly communicated and understood at all levels of the enterprise. We also tell clients that any policy requires planning for when – when, not if – that foundation springs a leak.

We’re interested in other takes on this subject. Is the military so different from other public agencies and the private sector? Do any readers have experience in the military and then different views with a different organization?

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