Academic journal article Military Review

Improving Media Relations

Academic journal article Military Review

Improving Media Relations

Article excerpt

JUNIOR MILITARY personnel do not have faith and confidence in their leaders. First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn is court-martialed for adultery. The military's homosexuality policy denies people the right to serve honorably in the military. Drill instructors sexually assault recruits in basic training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Major General (MG) David R. Hale's retirement and Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney's court-- martial reveal a double standard between officer and enlisted misconduct. Senior military officials fail to accurately advise Congress on the overall state of readiness in the military.

The military has had its fair share of time in the media spotlight in recent years, some of it good, some of it bad. There are two types of bad news. The military or someone in the military did a bad thing; even worse, news is reported out of context and fails to give a complete account of the truth. There is little the military can do to prevent bad news. When the military or someone in the military does a bad thing, the American people have a right to know. It is the media's duty to report on the military, and the military should not stand in the way. But there is something that can be done to prevent news from being reported out of context.

Unfortunately, the military traditionally tries to set the record straight after the fact. This is much like trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle-it just cannot be done. Once bad news hits the front page, no matter how hard the military tries, its corrective efforts never seem to make it beyond page seven or eight. Fortunately, however, the armed services appear to be learning from past experiences. They have discovered that the traditional "right to remain silent" approach to the media does not work. Out of this historically stoic stance, the need, in fact the urgency, to tell the military's story to the general public is clear. There are essentially two ways to tell the military's story: indirectly, through the media; and directly to the public via press conferences, press releases, and public appearances.

Understanding the Media Interest

If the military is to engage the media, it must first understand the media's broad general interests but, more important, their specific interest in a particular event. This should be treated no differently from any other military operation that we study to understand the opposition through intelligence gathering. If the Army spent a fraction of its time and resources understanding the media, it would be much better prepared for engagement. Essential to understanding the media is not so much what they cover as why. To the extent the military understands why the media covers a particular story, it will be better prepared to ensure the story is put in the proper context the first time.

Flinn's court-martial provides a perfect example of how the military fails to recognize the media's interest in a story and, therefore, fails to take the steps necessary to ensure the media and general public understand the full story the first time. News of Flinn's situation in remote Minot, North Dakota, drew the national media's attention during spring 1997.1 The media initially portrayed her as a victim of brutal military justice system that was prosecuting her for the heinous crime of adultery. The U.S. Air Force initially downplayed the incident and declined to engage the media. It was not until months later that Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald R. Fogleman finally explained to congressional representatives that the crux of the case against Flinn was not adultery. She had disobeyed a lawful order and lied to a superior officer. Only then did the media and the general public begin to understand the true nature of the case and a little something about military culture and discipline. Unfortunately, Fogleman's response was too little, too late, and the Air Force's reputation took a significant hit, not to mention that Flinn was able to leave the service under far more favorable terms than was otherwise expected. …

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