CACI's CEO: Lessons in PR from Abu Ghraib

Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 4:36 PM EDT

our_good_name.JPGLet's say you are the CEO of a company in which you take much pride.

One day, there's a message on the voice mail from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He has questions that are going to haunt you and your firm for years.

What do you do?

Most CEOs would order up an angry press release or pay for a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal.

But J. Phillip "Jack" London, a former Navy helicopter pilot and CEO and Chairman of defense contractor, CACI Inc., fought back in a more intense way.

He organized an in-house team that, over three and a half years, reported, wrote and published a slick, 780-page, painstakingly-footnoted book refuting the allegations with citations from public hearings and probes.

The story began in late April 2004 when Hersh was about to publish a blockbuster piece in The New Yorker outlining abuses in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At the time, CACI was handling services and IT in the global anti-terrorism campaign and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hersh had been leaked an internal Army report implicating several CACI personnel at Abu Ghraib, among other abuses.

Just before Hersh's story hit the stands, CBS broadcast pictures of U.S. troops mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One enduring image is that of a prisoner as he stands barefoot on a box with his hands attached to electrodes while he wears a Ku Klux Klan-style hood.

Yet despite nine investigations by the military and Congress and the court martials and reprimands of several military enlisted personnel and officers, CACI's workers were never convicted of anything, London notes. Yet the firm's name was forever slimed in data bases and Google searches. "We were put through, broadly speaking, a lot of trauma," London told me this week.

London said he immediately launched an internal probe after the Hersh phone call. Evidence against CACI seemed flimsy. In one case, a contract worker identified as being from CACI really was with another firm. "Some of our people did some things that were inappropriate, but it wasn't what you saw in those photos," London said.

CACI, however, couldn't seem to shake its new reputation. So, London decided to write a book detailing the firm's position. The privately-published tome is titled "Our Good Name" and is on sale in bookstores nationally. Copies have been given to all CACI workers.

I was fascinated by the approach since I have watched the wide variety of tactics companies use, rightly or wrongly, when they are under intense pressure and negative scrutiny.

Firms might hire high-priced PR firms and circle the wagons. They either shun the media or public altogether or try to lead them into an entirely new world.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, for example, has been under intense public and legal pressure for years because of its allegedly deadly products. Its responding tactic is breathtakingly disingenuous. In colorful pamphlets and websites, the company simply urges you not to buy their products. Yet Switzerland-based Philip Morris International, a sister firm that serves the fast-growing global market for cigarettes, does not make a similar warning effort.

London says that he was inspired by the response of Johnson & Johnson which had been beset by tampering with the seals of bottles of its pain-reliever Tylenol. Instead of hunkering down defensively, London says, J&J jumped in to find the problem. "They were a good role model," he says. "They were forthright and cooperated with authorities."

The book effort involved London, his public relations right-hand woman, Jody Brown, a research assistant, and several ghost writers. The project, which involved researching just about all public documents relating to the Abu Ghraib probes, cost "several hundred thousand dollars," says London. It was done almost entirely in-house and to save money, no national public relations firm was involved.

The book was printed by Regnery Publishing Inc. in Washington this year. It can be a rather dense read but is impressively documented. It retails for $29.95 and London says CACI's share of the proceeds goes to charities for disabled veterans.

This sense of military service pervades CACI, which was founded in San Diego in 1962 by former RAND Corp. executives. It moved to Virginia later and became a leader in government and military services, especially in IT and communications. So many retired military are employees that it is jokingly referred to as "Captains, Admirals and Colonels, Inc."

London emphasizes his and his firm's sense of service as he sits in his 16th floor office, decorated with models of U.S. aircraft carriers and Soviet military memorabilia, just a few miles form the Pentagon. As a young helicopter pilot in 1962, The Naval Academy graduate took part in a naval blockade of Cuba during the Soviet missile crisis.

Regarding the extra measures he took in the Abu Ghraib case, he says: "We may be a model others will follow. In some cases you just don't have any alternatives. There are so many databases out there."