As any public relations expert knows, the message is everything. It's a truism the Pentagon is now living with as it attempts to manage the information and perceptions surrounding the war in Iraq. So far, so good, it seems. According to some of the marketing industry's top thinkers, the Pentagon's PR planning has gone better than the war itself. To assess the strategy and glean some wisdom for civilians, Business 2.0 spoke with Al Ries, author of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR; Harry Beckwith, author of Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing; and Simon Anholt, former marketing consultant to the British government and author of Brand New Justice: The Upside of Global Branding.
Business 2.0: Are the Pentagon and its U.K. counterpart doing a good job of controlling the wartime message?
Al Ries: Unlike in any other war, they started out with 400 reporters scattered around in the field. It would be pretty hard for them to completely control it with that many voices, all anxious for scoops. But PR-wise, they've done a very good job so far.
Harry Beckwith: They've largely succeeded in controlling the message. Allowing embedded reporters helped. These reporters feel some debt to the Pentagon and no doubt have a heightened sense of what it is like to walk the thin blue line. They no longer are outsiders who more easily can condemn acts in war. They have seen what kids are exposed to and the burdens they bear.
Simon Anholt: It's becoming more difficult as time goes on. With this war, it's the presence of the embedded journalists that is making control over the message so tricky. It's especially hard in the U.K., where there is a deeply rooted tradition of the media mistrusting politicians and giving the lie to their banter; the only paper that is currently supporting the war is losing readers by the thousand every day. The reporting in most of the rest would have been considered treasonable during the Second World War. Plus, of course, the dictator always has something of an advantage when it comes to propaganda battles -- he doesn't have to bother with counterbalancing dissenting voices, because there aren't any.
B2: What are the biggest risks to the Pentagon's strategy, particularly with the embedded journalists?
Anholt: The risk is total loss of control over the message -- especially if these embedded journalists start spouting antiwar sentiments. The potential reward is showing, if you're lucky, that the honor and decency of coalition troops is not a myth but a reality. You can prove things to people.
Beckwith: The most obvious risk is of My Lai II, some incident where American troops behave so atrociously that it turns people against them and intensifies antiwar sentiment. Casualties to reporters are another risk, although you could argue they would sensitize the networks and publications even more to the peril of war, which would also be to the Pentagon's benefit. You could also argue that the embedded strategy could easily co-opt the reporters, working much like a variation of the Stockholm syndrome, leading the journalists to identify with their "captors" -- in this case the American military. I believe that a variation on this has occurred, and that the Pentagon knew that it would. A smart move, with the benefits far outweighing the risks -- so much so that you might ask, "Why didn't they do this in earlier wars?"
Ries: Not controlling the message (by using embedded reporters) is a wise move. The minute you try to control things, you're asking for trouble in the long run. The media wants the truth. Yeah, you sometimes get mixed messages, but you have to be sophisticated enough to realize that there's not always a clear-cut understanding of what's going on in war. They made a courageous decision. That's the way we have to do PR in the future, and that's the way we'll have to fight wars in the future.
B2: What are they doing right, messagewise?
Beckwith: They at least are conveying the appearance of openness and cooperation, by offering regular reports and press conferences. They've also put very able communicators in front of the press. For different reasons and with different styles, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks, and the others have done a great job of dominating the dialogue. For every critic, they've marshaled three or four counterpoints, and gotten them in front of American viewers and readers. They've overwhelmed their opposition, frankly. By hook and crook, they've blunted Iraq's efforts to publicize civilian casualties, which was the key element of Iraq's counterstrategy. They've either discredited these reports or, in some cases, shifted the responsibility to Saddam Hussein and his regime by suggesting -- plausibly -- that Iraqi forces are putting civilians in harm's way. The Pentagon's ongoing efforts to portray Hussein as Stalin multiplied have been effective; most Americans view him as a murderer at least and a monster in some cases. That portrayal is key. We cannot justify liberating Iraq unless their leader is a despot.
Ries: They've been very open. They're putting out lots of voices, and they're not funneling everything through Rumsfeld. The fewer the voices, the more the media thinks it's being controlled.
Anholt: They're sounding confident and professional.
B2: Any criticisms?
Anholt: They're occasionally sounding far from confident and professional.
Ries: It's very bad PR to say a reporter's question is silly, as some in the Bush administration have suggested. That's not a good move in any PR situation. You've got to say, "That's an interesting question."
Beckwith: It's hard to imagine ever counseling a CEO to say a reporter's question is silly. But in this specific case, it works, because the Pentagon is expected to act with shocking aggression from time to time, so an aggressive answer like that can work, particularly in light of America's relationship with the media. Most Americans think the media often is silly too, so the remarks work. But no business executive should adduce a bigger lesson here. This case is unique.
Anholt: Sometimes it can sound right if it helps the impression of supreme professionalism and competence -- i.e., we know much more about this than even smart reporters who are believed to be experts on almost everything. More often it sounds defensive and arrogant.
B2: How do you assess Rumsfeld's abilities as a communicator?
Ries: Rumsfeld is a little too cocky. I think he could be a little more humble.
Beckwith: Some might criticize Rumsfeld's bluntness, which can even sound haughty. But because so much of the audience is critical of the media, Rumsfeld's bluntness strikes a chord in many and strikes almost everyone as refreshing candor. The polls show that people like his style, just as so many responded to Spiro Agnew and Jesse Ventura.
B2: What lessons can businesses learn from all of this?
Ries: First, be as open as possible. If you believe what you are doing is right, there is no reason you cannot be transparent. Second, use multiple voices. I always like it when a CEO tells you to get more information from "Frank in R&D" or from "Steve in marketing." The more voices repeating the same thing, the more credibility, the more the media is willing to believe it. Finally, you've got to be willing to accept a range of opinions in the media. You have to be courageous.
Beckwith: I think Pentagon public relations in times of war are cases sui generis, and it's risky to build general rules from unique circumstances. I do think that Donald Rumsfeld is a good example of the general proposition that the ideal strategy for any public communicator is to be true to yourself. Whatever we may think of him or the other spokesmen, we are getting the sense of people being true to themselves, and this makes us more inclined to believe they are being truthful. To me, this is the best lesson. The second is the importance in business of managing expectations. The satisfaction of the customers or clients of anything is the relationship between what they expect and what they receive. When the Pentagon realized that expectations were of a race to and through Baghdad and to a swift conclusion, they did a good job of working the media to try to reduce expectations. It wasn't a complete success, but they marshaled a very good effort under the circumstances, and behind the scenes they moved their supporters into position to massage those expectations even more.
Anholt: Being in possession of the truth is not adequate justification for it. You need to sell it, and sell it, and sell it. Talking about being ethical is not sufficient either: You need to prove it, and show it.