Before this week's big change at the Pentagon, there was another, albeit less momentous change that gained headlines -- the Pentagon's newest public relations strategy. We noted last week that the Department of Defense appeared to be taking a page from the White House Communications Office in ramping up the "rapid response" unit of its public relations operation – a technique traditionally seen only during the rough and tumble of political campaigns. Much like the White House's strategy, one aspect of this effort includes rebutting news reports that the Pentagon perceives as inaccurate or misleading.The New York Times last week looked into the operation, noting that one television reporter had been approached by the Pentagon press office regarding the tone of her reporting:
Barbara Starr, a veteran Pentagon correspondent for CNN, said she was surprised last month to be challenged by press officers within minutes after completing a report on a Baghdad briefing where the military's top spokesman called the results of recent security operations "disheartening." Ms. Starr said she had called it a "stunning development" on the air.Pentagon Spokesman Brian Whitman told the Times that he was unaware of the call to Starr, "but said that he had challenged the content of television broadcasts before and that it had nothing to do with the reorganization of the press office."
"They objected to the tone during my live shot," she said. "My view is that if a general says things are disheartening, that is news."
CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin told us that he hasn't yet "been hit by the quick-reaction squad. But I would agree with Barbara that the use of the word 'disheartening' by the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq was a 'stunning development,' particularly since he was reading from a prepared text."
As far as the potential effect that this might have on his reporting, Martin said that the new strategy poses detriments – as well as benefits.
"My view is if government wants to complain about your coverage, have at it, because in the process of telling you why your story is all wrong they invariably give you information you didn't have before. The risk -- and I'm sure part of the motivation for this quick-reaction squad -- is that reporters will be intimidated, i.e., make them think twice before they report. I doubt seriously that the prospect of a complaining phone call from a public affairs officer is going to be much of an intimidation factor."
The more palpable downside for reporters, said Martin, is that this effort will serve to "sour the atmosphere" between the press and the Pentagon. "It will increase the sniping back and forth."
Most of the DOD press officers that he has spoken with aren't in favor of the strategy. "They think this whole idea of strategic communication just damages their credibility as public affairs officers, and they don't like it at all."
But those concerns are somewhat secondary for the Pentagon, said Martin.
"The point here is whether or not it will improve the overall policy," said Martin. "They don't want inaccurate truths about defense policy to get established. They figure that if only accurate stories appear then people will only have a much better opinion of the Defense Department and what it's about."
That argument may be prevalent, but no one has ever been able to figure whether efforts like this one have any real impact, said Martin. "When you look at what Arabs think about our support of Israel and Israel's treatment of Palestinians -- that is a real steep hill to climb in terms of changing public opinion. And I don't think jumping on inaccuracies in news stories is really going to have an effect."
Rumsfeld's departure likely won't stem the public relations changes, although Martin said that it "remains to be seen" if Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dorrance Smith, who initiated them, will remain in his position under Robert Gates. Smith was hired by Rumsfeld and, Martin said, "political appointees usually bring in people they know from their previous lives. Obviously Gates, who has served in government, probably knows plenty of people in government public affairs."
Either way, the strategy will likely stay in place. "You've got a certain amount of bureaucratic inertia. People are assigned to these quick-reaction jobs and they've divided up space in the public relations office. Once the partitions go up, it's hard to take them down."
You can read about Martin's thoughts on the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over at Couric & Co..