Thursday, June 24, 2010

Media Training for Generals

Last week I conducted media training with the board of my client, the R.I. Society of CPAs. Based on the events of the last 24 hours, I think it’s fair to say that the CPAs are probably better equipped to successfully manage their media relationships than (now retired) Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff.

Here are four points straight from New Harbor’s media training presentation that Gen. McChrystal might want to ponder in his retirement.
  • DON’T say anything you don’t want to see on TV or in print attributed to you.

This is Rule #1. If they quote you and you didn’t say it, you might be able to get it fixed (yes – even then, only “might.”) But if you said it, you own it. And as the years go by, it gets increasingly difficult to ensure that the pieces of your interview a reporter uses are even put in the right context.

When President Obama said the General exhibited “poor judgment,” he wasn’t kidding. This is basic stuff.

  • Set limits. Don’t let a reporter go on an indefinite fishing expedition.

Two weeks, practically uninterrupted access?! Big, big mistake. It’s hard enough not to say anything you regret in an hour, never mind two weeks.

  • DON’T say anything ironic or sarcastic. Think twice about trying to be funny – it usually doesn’t work, especially in print.

Gen. McChrystal and his team never claimed to be misquoted, or taken out of context – they just came out with their hands up. But if you get too comfortable, the temptation to try your new stand-up routine can become overwhelming. Don’t do it!

  • DON’T assume the microphone, camera or tape recorder is off immediately before or after an interview.

As long as the reporter is there, you should assume you are on the record and anything you say is “in play.” (I talked about the dangers of “Off the Record” here.) In fact, my rule is that if there’s an interview taking place or a reporter on the premises, I carefully consider everything I say until that’s no longer the case.

And finally, question the concept of “reporter as friend.” Clearly Gen. McChrystal and his team got awfully comfortable with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone – way too comfortable. Perhaps after two weeks they saw Hastings as one of their group, or even a “friend”. Very dangerous. There are some reporters I consider to be my friends, and I’m always “friendly” with all of them. But when they’re working, they simply cannot be expected to do what your friends routinely do – overlook all the silly, unwise, injudicious or out-of-character things you may say.

When it comes to interacting with the media, it’s all on the record. Even between friends.


Anonymous said...

Great advice. I would also add, refrain from the excessive consumption of alcohol in a reporters presence, especially when the scribe is writing a profile piece.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming too much about Gen McChrystal and his staff. It's an increasing practice when senior officers disagree with their civilian leadership (or even military superiors) to use the media to make their case as well as to posture (hopefully) for the post-retirement future.

When Gen Shinseki disagreed with Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz, he went the traditional route of making his case to the President and Congress (which he is both allowed and supposed to do by law). When Rumsfeld threw him under the bus for that, senior officers got the message. Combined with the recent learning curve from imbeded reporters and the increasing separation of the military and politicians, you now have officers who go beyond just "leaking" anonymously to using the media either to influence or have as an escape card.

I suspect McChrystal was unhappy with the direction coming from the White House (especially the VP) and didn't want to execute a startegy he didn't believe in. Given the fractured approach to Afghanistan (NATO, Petreaeus, Eikenberry, Holbrooke), is it a surprise that several 4 star generals have been cycled through that command in the past few years? Very few officers want to just "fade away" and less want to seen as presiding over a quagmire.

So, use the media..see if it works. If it doesn't, offer a mea culpea, knowing some groups will see you as a hero and embrace you ($$$) as you write a book, etc if you're out. If the President wanted to send a message, he would not have let McChrystal retire as a 4-star (he technically does not meet the requirements).