The views expressed in this article are the author's and are not necessarily those of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, the National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.
If you ever wanted a near-perfect case study of how not to deal with the press, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) controversy would be a great place to start. Of course, the Walter Reed episode also offers lessons in leadership and accountability. Some of those lessons manifest themselves in this article, but the focus here is on the Army's bungled interaction with the news media and on how to avoid a repeat of the nightmarish fiasco.
On Sunday, 18 February 2007, the Washington Post Magazine--with a circulation of just over 900,000--carried a major story by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, two of the newspaper's staff reporters. Titled "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army's Top Medical Facility," the story ignited a firestorm in the Congress and the Defense Department. The opening paragraph of the story was an eye-catcher: "Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above though a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carryout. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses." (1) Duncan had suffered a broken back in Iraq, lost an ear there, and had been brought to Walter Reed to be treated for his injuries and to recuperate.
The Post story went on to describe how the two reporters had spent four months visiting WRAMC, talking with patients and their families, and seeing for themselves the conditions at what they dubbed "the Other Walter Reed." (2) The reporters had interviewed the WRAMC commander, Army Major General George W. Weightman, and included his comments and explanations as part of the story. (3)
The story was a nightmare for the Army, and the Post reprised it the following day with a lengthy piece about the WRAMC's Mologne House and the Soldiers housed there. A facility originally designed for housing families of Walter Reed patients, Mologne House now accommodates recuperating Soldiers and their families. Although the story describes Mologne House's wingback chairs and fine chandeliers in its first paragraph, the story's emphasis was not on the physical surroundings, but on the bureaucratic intransigence convalescing Soldiers and their families encountered: "Mostly what the Soldiers do together is wait, for appointments, evaluations, signatures, and lost paperwork to be found." The reporters quoted the wife of one Soldier as saying, "If Iraq don't kill you, Walter Reed will." (4)
The Army's handling of this public relations disaster began before the Post even printed the initial story. The Post sent a long list of questions to the Army six days before publication of the Priest/ Hull article. (5) According to the Army, none of these questions dealt specifically with the conditions patients experienced at Walter Reed. The questions related solely to the process and paperwork of medical disability claims and how the Army handled them. None of the questions alerted the Army to issues that would be the focus of the Post's story: the condition of the facility in which it housed patients. Colonel Daniel Baggio, the chief of media relations for Army public affairs at the time, noted that, "Building 18 was not even mentioned in the questions from the Post." (6)
The Army took advantage of its receipt of the list of questions from the Post to stage what the newspaper's media critic, Howard Kurtz, labeled a "preemptive news briefing." (7) Calling in six rival news organizations, the Army offered them what it knew about the forthcoming Post story and the Army's response to it, asking them not to publish anything--"embargo the story" is the term used in the news business--until the early Sunday edition of the newspaper hit local grocery and convenience stores on Saturday afternoon. …