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General McChrystal's Big Lesson in Media Relations

General Stanley McChrystal As far back as I can remember, executives have been shooting themselves in the foot by blabbing to the media. Make no mistake, it's one of the quickest, easiest, and dumbest ways to bring an otherwise successful career to an untimely end. And when it happens to you, it's a lesson you never forget.

Just ask General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Wait, you can't. That's because he's on his way back to Washington to attempt to explain his now all-too-public mocking of vice president Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials in a Rolling Stone article entitled "The Runaway General." Here's a choice excerpt:

... unable to help themselves, he [McChrystal] and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?"

"Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite Me?"

Imagine six pages just like that. It seems that McChrystal and his staff spent way too much time and let their guard down with a Rolling Stone reporter who travelled with them from Paris to Kabul. McChrystal has already reportedly fired one of his top press aides over the article.

If you think this wasn't a career threatening move, think again. In 2008, then commander of U.S. forces in the middle east Admiral Fox Fallon contradicted Bush administration policy on Iran in an Esquire story and ended up resigning his post.

Now, some folks I've spoken with suggest that the general was intentionally venting out of frustration or to get a message across to the Obama administration. I'll tell you what I told them. If that's what he was doing, this was a really dumb way to do it for two reasons.

One, his tone in the article was generally mocking, not one of serious disagreement over wartime policy and strategy. Two, this wasn't the Wall Street Journal, this was Rolling Stone. Not exactly the right venue for a serious conversation on grave matters.

Before I get into how to avoid this sort of thing, let me tell you a personal story. A long time ago I let my guard down with a reporter and said something I shouldn't have about one of my company's partners, Microsoft. Of course, the reporter quoted me, and it got me in some very hot water with Bill Gates.

My Microsoft liaison at the time, a smart guy named Carl Stork, gave me some very good advice after the fact. He said, "These days, before I talk to the press, I weigh how much damage I can do versus the benefit." His point was, for the most part, when it comes to discussing controversial topics with the media, you're better off just keeping your big mouth shut.

Now, I've been quoted by the media thousands of times and I can count the times I've regretted what came out of my mouth on the fingers of one hand. To achieve that, here are seven golden rules I learned along the way that everyone with something to lose should keep in mind when talking to the media:

  1. The mic is always on; never let your guard down
  2. If it sounds funny coming out of your mouth, you'll probably regret it later
  3. There is no such thing as background or off the record (of course there is, but it has too much to do with trust in the individual to risk anything serious)
  4. Know your key messages cold and always stay on message
  5. To avoid being taken out of context, paraphrased, or characterized, be aware of how you say things; your true feelings and emotions will come across in ways you're not aware of that a reporter can take advantage of
  6. Drinking and the media don't mix
  7. Stick to business and keep your personal feelings to yourself
Now, for the all-important question: Should McChrystal be fired or allowed to resign over this? Well, he dissed his command in front of his staff. On that basis alone, I'd say yes. Then again, there's a war going on, which can either make that an even more emphatic yes or a maybe. Success in Afghanistan is the priority. I guess we'll find out after he meets with President Obama. But personally, I think he's out of there. What do you think?

Updated 6/22/10 3:45 pm: Added excerpt from Rolling Stone article and last paragraph.

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