By Patricia H. Kushlis
Was the U.S. military really so hard up for experienced career public affairs advisers that General Stanley McChrystal had to turn to a civilian on contract with minimal public affairs experience, a possibly questionable employment record and, for that matter, no long term commitment to the U.S. government – military or civilian – as his chief public affairs adviser? Not only did it show terrible judgment on McChrystal’s part in selecting Duncan Boothby for the demanding position but also dereliction on the part of the US military and the Department of Defense for letting it happen at all.
Are there no longer rules that govern who can be a military public affairs adviser – or have all these sensitive positions been outsourced to the private sector willy nilly? In Boothby’s case, his contractor’s name was Babaricon, LLC or at least it was from 2007-2009 when he played strategic communications guru for Lt. General William Caldwell, a senior US commander on McChrystal’s staff.
What about any Pentagon guidelines that might have detailed which reporters – if any - are granted the kind of intimate access to McChrystal and his aides that free lance reporter Michael Hastings who wrote the Rolling Stone article was accorded? Did such guidelines, perhaps, get tossed out the window? If so, who tossed them out? And why? Or am I imagining that guidelines of this kind ever existed in the first place?
In a June 22 Washington Post story, Ernesto Londino, reporting from Kabul,wrote: “Booth is one of a growing number of civilians hired as press aides for senior military brass as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to generate considerable public interest and controversy. Military officials say civilians are often better suited to provide constructive criticism and unconventional ideas than military public affairs professionals.”
Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column on the topic suggested that the policy changed under General David Petraeus. If so, Petraeus should do a really quick rethink of that policy himself. Maybe Secretary Gates and others should also revisit the “star system” which has emerged over the past few years which seems to be turning certain military officers into rock stars. Is this really in the national interest?
Unconventional thinkers for a conventional task? Why?
Fine, I guess, but do generals really need to rely on unconventional thinkers to handle what has in the past been a pretty conventional task that foremost relies on experienced judgment, common sense, people skills and ability to do some background research?
Are untried unconventional thinkers likely to be skilled enough to be public affairs advisers brokering interviews and contacts between high level government officials and reporters, developing press guidance, writing speeches and arranging press conferences, setting up media centers and ensuring that real live journalists have the background information they need to write their stories?
Representing the US government is not the same thing as being a reporter and an unconventional approach may be just what is needed for the murky world of strategic communications – but when it comes to face-to-face interactions with journalists, thinking and acting out of the box while throwing caution to the winds may not be the best or most effective approach. In fact, it may spell big trouble. And, by the way, the role of a public affairs adviser is not the same as that of engaging in strategic communications.
A highly experienced journalist might do just fine in the public affairs adviser position although the two examples given in Londino’s article suggest that that’s not how they were used – but someone with Boothby’s credentials?
Strategic communications and public affairs are not the same.
A strategic communications contract employee with apparently only five years of experience should not be expected to morph overnight into a public affairs expert capable of representing the head of the most difficult command and dealing with some of the most demanding journalists. Strategic communications is often about the dark side of information dissemination – the propaganda, lies, disinformation and deceit that is part of the battlefield and conducted in secret beneath the surface. Genghis Khan was a master at it. But that’s not what public affairs is all about. Credibility and putting the government’s best foot forward is the name of that game.
The new media is no panacea
From what I’ve been able to discern, Boothby’s expertise – aside from having being an up-and-coming actor at a North Carolina small box theater and working for a PR trade publication – was in the new media and social networking area of communications technology – tools most of the US military brass still reportedly does not use and, therefore, fail to understand. Unfortunately, too many of them have been sold that command of the new media is the panacea for the military’s communications problems.
It isn’t. How many Afghan villagers, for example, are linked in on the Internet? And certainly manipulation of the new media has nothing to do with bridging the last three feet between General and journalist. The new media relies on the old media for news and some of that news is generated by reporters interviewing government officials. The new media then takes that news and disseminates it in ways – and this is what makes it new – never conceived of just a few years ago.
McChrystal did have media experience
Regardless, McChrystal should have known better than to have cozied up to freelancer Michael Hastings. According to Hastings’ article, McChrystal had been Pentagon spokesman at the beginning of the Iraq invasion so it’s not exactly as if he had had no prior experience dealing with the US media. He may well be a warrior’s warrior and someone who pushed the envelope time and time again – but it seems to me anyone who has risen to the position of General, Admiral or Ambassador should not make the same mistakes McChrystal did in dealing with this or any other reporter regardless of advice from a public affairs adviser – experienced or not.
Why a reporter writing a free-lance story for an anti-war publication was allowed to 1) embed with the troops in the field for an extended length of time; and 2) be given access to McChrystal and his fowl-mouthed, all too cocky aides for nearly a month – volcano ash, desert dust or no – also makes no sense to me. If McChrystal’s ulterior motive was to make himself look good and everyone else – except Hillary who wasn’t mentioned – come across as bumbling idiots, it didn’t work. This article was a hatchet job on everyone through and through.
From what I understand, the US military only assists film producers who produce films that show the US military in a positive light. Whether I agree with this policy is neither here nor there and I’m not sure I do. But if film producers need to pass some kind of US military loyalty litmus test, shouldn’t reporters embedded with the US military in the field or even more crucially in close personal contact with the head of the entire military command also be subjected to the same scrutiny as representatives of the movie industry?
The Pentagon's strategic communications cup is not running on empty
The Pentagon’s strategic communications cup runneth over with dollars. If there is a problem of public affairs competency within the ranks, shouldn’t some of this money be devoted to improving the quality and skills of the military's own public affairs advisers and public affairs efforts? Wouldn’t putting the military’s best foot forward as opposed to sleazing around in the murk of lies, deception and questionable operations for which strategic communications is famous be a worthy investment?
This, of course, means media training and lots of hands on media experience at various levels before bursting anyone forth in a starring role at Rockefeller Center. This includes all high ranking officers as well as public affairs advisers. Military attaches at US Embassies abroad included.
It also means foremost reliance on the military’s very own cadre of experienced public affairs advisers whether military officers or career civilian professionals who have proven capable of handling sensitive media assignments over the years. Or, in certain cases, the Foreign Service Officers assigned as public affairs or information officers at Embassies.
Once upon a time, military public affairs advisers were excellent and professionals
Certainly the military public affairs professionals I dealt with – from Colonel Smullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell’s public affairs adviser to those connected with units in the field were excellent. I found them accommodating, helpful and willing to go the extra mile to accommodate the needs of American and foreign journalists. Furthermore, the public affairs counselors or advisers on the US delegations to NATO, the EU and assigned to the various arms control negotiations in Vienna and Geneva were all career USIA Foreign Service Officers. They knew what was required of them and they did it.
Moreover, Hastings should have been a known quantity and Boothby could and should have checked the record. Or did he? Hastings had covered the war in Iraq and also written a book about that conflict. But he had no real media affiliation. This, as a CNAS blogger pointed out, should have been a red flag to any public affairs adviser in and of itself. The slant of the publication to which he planned to sell the story was also known. Red flag number two.
A patched-together hatchet-job
Hastings' article itself is a patched together piece front-loaded with titillating slurs against US high level officials by unnamed sources on McChrystal’s ten-member personal staff. Other than that, the "Runaway General" is as personally damming of McChrystal as of the counter-insurgency war policy he was selected to lead – and a policy he helped design. Several of the comments might well be considered grounds for court marshal – if the individuals in question had been personally identified – but none were. Or maybe not, if Boothby was the primary source because, after all, he was not uniformed military.
In the end though, I have to wonder about Michael Hastings' judgment as well. Certainly his journalistic career as a national security reporter is on the ropes. There’s no way he’ll be given access to sources anywhere in the Obama administration and I doubt the Republicans would be any more trusting. With those doors shut what major media outlet would be willing to hire him?
Yes, what was McChrystal thinking – but Boothby and Hastings too? Playing with fire is dangerous and not just for the General's career but everyone else involved in this sorry tale as well.