Embedding Reporters in Iraq and More from Rumsfeld's PR Chief
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Embedding Reporters in Iraq and More from Rumsfeld's PR Chief

Clarke has enjoyed a long and interesting career but it is her masterful strategy of “embedding” reporters with American military units that will be of most interest to public relations professionals who pick up her book.

Paul Holmes

It’s hard not to read Lipstick on a Pig as two quite separate books. The first is an attempted defense of the indefensible, in which author Torie Clarke—unintentionally illustrating her title—strives to portray her former boss Donald Rumsfeld as a paragon of transparency and integrity. The second is a collection of practical, common sense advice for chief executives who are not born to communications but rather have communications thrust upon them. Readers who can get past the first (or those who share the author’s affection for the former defense secretary) will find much of value in the second.

Clarke has enjoyed a long and interesting career. She was an advisor to Senator John McCain during the early days of his congressional career—including his involvement in the Lincoln savings and loan scandal; vice president of communications for the National Cable Telecommunications Association during the battle over telecom reform; president of Bozell Eskew advertising; head of the Washington, D.C., office of Hill & Knowlton; and most recently senior advisor for communications and government affairs at cable giant Comcast.

But it is her role as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq for which she is probably best known, and her masterful strategy of “embedding” reporters with American military units that will be of most interest to public relations professionals who pick up her book. And Clarke provides an engrossing account of the circumstances surrounding the implementation of that strategy.

“Iraq would require a level of transparency and unconventional thinking unseen at the Pentagon in recent years,” she says. “As we headed into a potential war with Iraq, it was no secret that public opinion was not nearly as strong as it had been when we went into Afghanistan. You cannot have successful ongoing military operations without public support. I knew from personal experience that the more people saw of these incredible kids in uniform, the more they would support them.”

Leaving aside the fact that Clarke seems to conflate support for the troops with support for the administration’s objectives in Iraq, there’s no doubt that she was right on this score, and that during the early stages of the invasion of Iraq, the public relations strategy was just as overwhelming as the military operation.

“The communications plan was nearly as exhaustive as the war plan, and its centerpiece was the embedding of journalists with military units on a scale never seen before,” Clarke explains. The essence of the strategy was “to flood the zone with information,” Clarke told Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs, to establish “information dominance.”

There were several reasons for such a strategy. “First of all, it was the right thing to do. Even before 9/11 and certainly after, Rumsfeld and most of the Pentagon’s leadership shared one of my most strongly held beliefs: that the American people deserve to know as much as possible about their military.”

In addition, “embedding reflected our confidence in three essential facts. First, we had a good story to tell—that our troops were topflight professionals taking great care to achieve their military objectives while minimizing the impact on, and reaching out to help, civilians. Second, to their extent problems should occur, transparency… was the best guarantee they would be fixed quickly. Third, when we just plain made mistakes—which was inevitable—the only way to maintain our credibility was to own up to them quickly.”

Embedded media could also be used to refute Iraqi propaganda, she believed. (There are numerous references, darkly ironic given what we now know about the administration’s case for war, to Saddam Hussein as the “king of liars.”)

Says Clarke, “Embedding was a military strategy in addition to a public affairs one. We had to keep other Middle Eastern regions out of the conflict. If false propaganda about American forces took hold, the so-called Arab street—public opinion in the Arab world—might erupt. Regimes might well be overthrown, and other countries could be drawn into the war. Here, as always, transparency was our best defense, so we embedded many journalists from international media outlets like Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera as well as American reporters.”

The strategy worked. When Marines near the city of Najaf opened fire on a van approaching a checkpoint, killing a family of civilians including children, embedded reporters “provided a context that wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t been on the scene when the tragedy occurred. Flooding the zone works. When something goes well, people see and hear it. When something foes badly, it’s dealt with quickly and directly.”

Clarke even makes the point that the abuses at Abu Ghraib might never have happened had there been embedded reporters on site.

There was some institutional resistance within the Pentagon to Clarke’s plan, but senior officials, including Rumsfeld and Myers, were early enthusiasts. “Rumsfeld didn’t just go along,” Clarke reports. “He was a strong backer of the embedding program who instinctively understood that transparency was on our side.” In the end, more than 700 journalists were embedded with American forces, and the number could have been higher, had news organizations had enough correspondents to fill all the available slots.

There were some early problems with journalists filing stories that included operationally sensitive information, and at one point General Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the invasion, was ready to pull the plug on the experiment, but in the end, Clarke says, “the overwhelming majority of embedded journalists acted professionally and responsibly throughout the conflict. Any number of them has access to information that would have made for a great story but which would have put troops at risk, and they almost never reported it.”

A cynic might wonder whether Rumsfeld was genuinely enthusiastic about transparency of whether he perhaps realized sooner than most that embedding reporters with military units would co-opt the reporters in question, tainting their coverage. As Jules Crittenden of the Boston Herald, embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, told PoynterOnline: “There is no question that it is nearly impossible to live with a group of well-intentioned men in trying circumstances and not feel yourself slowly becoming one of them.”

Even the occasional lapse by reporters, when sensitive information was released, worked to the Pentagon’s favor, reinforcing the notion of liberal bias within the media and suggesting that anything less than extravagant praise of the military was to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Whether the military’s motivation for flooding the zone represented a genuine commitment to transparency or something more cynical—and I don’t doubt that in Clarke’s case it was the former—the strategy was brilliant, and Clarke insists it has a wider application.

“Flooding the zone can work in the private sector too,” says Clarke. “Every time I make that point, someone from the corporate world tells me I don’t understand, that large-scale transparency would never work in the private sector, that government and business are different creatures. Yeah, I respond, they are. Military commanders hold people’s lives in their hands. If anyone has a ready-made excuse for retreating behind a wall of secrecy, they do. And if they can let the sunshine in, anyone can.

“For business, that doesn’t mean embedding a reporter in every cubicle or opening every board meeting to the media—although you might want to consider more of that than you’d initially think. What it does mean is flooding the zone with every bit of information you can….

“The information age is not for the fainthearted. To succeed, you have to be very forward-leaning. In good times, that means putting a bright and constant spotlight on your accomplishments. In bad times, it means focusing on the mistakes with the same aggressiveness, so they get cleaned up faster. If you’re going to tell your own story, you have to really tell it. Especially when the topic is complex or controversial, half measures won’t get you there. Give them the whole picture.”

Whatever the real motivation, two things are certain. The first is that the initial media coverage of the war and its aftermath tended to accentuate the positive to the point that most Americans were profoundly misled about actual conditions on the ground in Iraq. And the second is that the Pentagon’s history of obfuscation and cover up in Iraq suggests that any commitment to transparency was jettisoned pretty swiftly when it became inconvenient.

One example of the media’s rah-rah patriotism was its coverage of the Jessica Lynch story, the capture and subsequent “rescue” of a young female private in the 507th Maintenance Company. The Washington Post quoted an official saying Lynch was “fighting to the death,” while other papers wrote that Lynch had sustained “multiple gunshot wounds” while firing to her last round before her capture.

Her rescue was reported in equally breathless terms, and it took months for the truth to emerge: her parents and the Army physicians treating her suggested that Lynch had not received any gunshot wounds. The army’s own investigation revealed that Lynch had never fired a shot; her weapon had jammed. And the commando raid that led to her rescue—soldiers videotaped the storming of the hospital—began to look like nothing more than a publicity stunt when it was learned that doctors had tried to hand Lynch over to coalition troops days earlier.

As for the notion that Rumsfled’s Pentagon was a paragon of transparency and integrity, that would seem to be undermined by many of the things we know today: the cover-up that followed the friendly fire death of former NFL star Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger; a similar cover-up over a 2003 incident in which American plans opened fire on a British convoy, killing a British soldier; the refusal to allow any media coverage of coffins returning from Iraq (on flights that arrive only at night); and—most damning of all from a public relations standpoint—Rumsfeld’s support of a program that paid Iraqi journalists to report positive news of American reconstruction efforts.

While the account of the invasion is a centerpiece of Lipstick on a Pig (there’s also an account of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, including Rumsfeld’s heroic leadership on the day), there’s much more to the book. Clarke is a strong advocate of a strategic role for communications in any organization, and a believer in the idea that communication is an important part of any leader’s job.

“I’m a big believer in face-to-face communications, literally meeting with key constituencies on a periodic basis,” she says. “Update them, keep them informed of your agenda, and address their concerns before they become critics…. I think every CEO should try to interact with real people as often as possible. Attend focus groups of actual customers at least once a year, preferably more, and hear what real people have to say about your product. Don’t just read the analysis of highly paid consultants who may or may not want to deliver the honest assessment if it’s a harsh one.”

(Again, skeptical readers may find themselves wondering if she ever gave this advice to her senior colleagues in the Bush administration, which has become notorious for staging events that are open only to the president’s most loyal supporters, and for the dismissal or marginalization of senior military officers who warned that the occupation of Iraq would not be as easy as the official plans suggested.)

Indeed, Clarke places a good deal of emphasis on the role of the CEO in effective communication, and Lipstick on a Pig will probably be most valuable to a chief executive wondering about his or her role in an era of transparency and information overload.

Clarke makes a compelling case for seizing the communications initiatives, pointing for example to the actions of Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz after a shooting in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Schultz left his vacation and flew to Washington, where he pledged his and his company’s commitment to help find the murderers and memorialize the lives lost (the store was later reopened and all profits directed to an anti-violence organization).

Says Clarke, “Schultz realized what a lot of executives don’t: especially at a critical time, communications was a key part of his responsibility as CEO.”

She recalls being asked by one of her former bosses, when she explained the need for him to be a communicator: “Isn’t that why we hired you?”

 “It goes to credibility,” she explains. “Increasingly people want their information straight from the horse’s mouth, a trend that foes to the general disintermediation in society… People are suspicious of the spinners and increasingly view the media’s role with cynicism and doubt. If the topic is engineering, people want an engineer. It it’s a crisis that impacts an entire organization, they want to see the CEO out front, not hiding behind corporate spokesmen.”

At the same time, she says, employees at all levels “can and should act as force multipliers, communicating the company’s overarching goals. You want them to stay in their lanes, but you also want them out there—whether it’s with fellow employees, the local Chamber of Commerce, or the news media—spreading the good news when there is some and dispelling rumors and misinformation when it’s out there.

“Keep them in the dark and you’ll have nothing but problems. Keep them informed, make clear you think communications is part of their job, and they’ll thrive and add real value to your company.”

In other words, for maximum effectiveness, the entire organization ought to be aligned behind a communications strategy.

Clarke is also a fierce advocate for communications planning, citing the military approach—SEMAC (for situation, model, excecution, administration and communication—as one model.

“The problem is, most people have plans for what they consider the substance side of a business or organization; they don’t apply the same approach to communications, and that’s a mistake. Every single communications operation should have rigorous standards applied to it. What’s the mission, the clearly defined objective? Next, what’s the strategy? Then, what tools and tactics will you use? Getting a positive story in the New York Times is not a strategy…. Unless you’ve got a goal to accomplish, a story in the New York Times is just something to do.”

That means communications professionals need to be involved in decision-making at its earliest stages, Clarke argues.

“To help you at landing, I need to be there at the takeoff. Don’t expect communications staff to bail you out in a disaster if you don’t tell them where you were headed in the first place. Include communications people in all key functions, especially the earliest planning of significant operations, and make clear to others in the organization that they have communications roles and responsibilities.

“If they’re in the mix, the communications staff can push hard on policy or operations people who may not have thought through all the potential consequences of a decision. Good communications people tend to be a paranoid lot. They can often spot a truly awful disaster before it occurs. And the relationship works both ways. The substantive folks—at least having long experience with a product or issue—can help communications.”

At the end of the day, however, good communication comes down to a commitment to doing the openness and honesty, even when neither seems particularly appealing.

In the early days of her career, Clarke worked with Senator John McCain during the savings and loan scandal, when he was accused of seeking favored treatment from regulators for Lincoln Savings & Loan boss Charles Keating. McCain differentiated himself from other senators caught up in the scandal by virtue of aggressive media outreach and a willingness to answer any and all questions.

According to Clarke, McCain distinguished himself because of his refusal to try “spinning” himself out of trouble. “All he did was go out to the press and tell his story. There was a time when it might have been different, when the last thing someone in his position would have done was volunteer to go before the press and lay out all the facts—unvarnished, untainted, unspun. Chances are a mouthpiece would have been dispatched to do the talking. If the principal appeared personally, every word would have poll-tested in advance, the timing of the news conference precision-calibrated to ht just the right moment in the news cycle, and questions planted with friendly reporters.”

Today, she says, “information travels too quickly. Sunshine permeates every corner of public and corporate life. A public figure who tries to hide from it is bound to be exposed—not just for what he or she has done, but for being unwilling to face it.”

The lessons from the S&L crisis, and from numerous others Clarke has handled during her career:
• Own Up. “McCain shouldn’t have met with regulators in the first place, and said so. Denying the obvious would have cost McCain the credibility he needed to fend off the charges that were genuinely unfair.”
• Stand Up. “McCain admitted what he did do, but he didn’t engage in confessional politics. He rebutted unfair charges with a simple message that could be repeated ad nauseam: ‘I never asked any regulator to back off Keating.’”
• Speak Up. “No matter what’s being alleged, charges unanswered are charges assumed to be true. MeCain let people know he was the kind of leaders who took responsibility for his actions and who wasn’t afraid of the truth.”

During her time at the Pentagon, Clarke saw Rumsfeld go one step further, not responding to a crisis but coming clean about a mistake—this one involving supposed evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda—before it was discovered by the media.

The reason for that decision was simple, she says: “In the information age, the bad news is going to get out. The only questions are who will tell it first and will they tell it accurately.

“The same rule applies in the business world, politics, or anywhere else. Wait for somebody else to tell the story and you’re probably not going to like how they tell it. Try to stonewall or blur the truth? Your competitors and the media that cover you will eat you for lunch. If reporters believe they’ve caught you doing something you were hoping to hide, the coverage is magnified by a factor of ten. If you leave off the details—or worse, mislead the audience—you’ll turn a one-day story into several days of follow-ups, every one of which will both repeat the bad news one more time and, to ice the cake, accuse you of having lied about it too.”

And, she warns, CEOs should not expect too much credit for coming clean. “A bad story is still a bad story…. The fact that you come clean doesn’t mean they aren’t going to cover what went wrong in the first place. They’re supposed to.” Having said that, candor does have a long-term benefit: “Most reporters thought more highly of McCain after the Keating Five scandal than they did before. That’s when the national media first caught on to the fact that he’s a straight-talker.”

If that sounds like simple common sense, it’s probably worth remembering—and a quick glance at the front page of any major newspaper on any typical day will reinforce the point—that common sense is not nearly as ubiquitous as the term suggests, even (or perhaps especially) among those who have risen to the top of corporate America.

Her rules for dealing the media are equally straightforward:

“First of all, be responsive. That means you need to return calls and return them promptly. By the time a reporter calls you, chances are he’s already getting bugged by his editor and feels under the gun….

“Second, be accurate with the news media. This rule goes above and beyond the obvious tenet to tell the truth. Don’t quote a number unless you’re sure about it. If you name and name, make sure you’ve got the rightr one. Don’t expect a reporter to have the time or inclination to check your facts. If you’re not sure, say so….

“Finally, be truthful—totally, completely—even if all you’re being truthful about is that you don’t know or can’t say. Say what you can—honestly—and then go no further.”

If all of that sounds rather obvious, it’s worth remembering that Clarke’s primary audience for most of this book is not her fellow professionals but a lay audience. It’s also worth noting that she illustrates her points with real-life examples—most of them self-effacing examples of her own gaffes over the years—to make it clear that even the smartest and most well-intentioned professionals can sometimes forgot these rules.

Lipstick on a Pig is an entertaining and informative read for communications professionals, but if you’re only going to buy one copy, I suggest you give it to your CEO. There are lessons in here from which any leader can benefit, and Clarke tells them in a modest, readable way, full of stories that will resonate with leaders.

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