Pentagon Plays the PR Game To Win

Last Updated Apr 23, 2008 12:44 PM EDT

I'm having a hard time getting terribly worked up about the New York Times story that the Pentagon used media training tactics to prep retired military officers for appearances as military analysts on TV talk shows.

This has nothing to do with my position on the Iraq war. The tagline for this blog is "smart ways to win the public relations game," and I'd have to say that the government's tactics meet that standard.

If anyone deserves being taken to task over this story, it's the network executives who hired these analysts and then didn't bother to vet them (no pun intended). From the Times story:

Some network officials... acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts' interactions with the administration. They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said.
So let's get this straight: the Pentagon recruits gung-ho retired officers who would probably support their position regardless, then gives them inside information and preps them so they are even more credible when speaking about military affairs. Then the networks "hire" these third-party endorsers and fail to use even the simplest journalistic techniques to discover whether these analysts came with a pre-conceived point of view. Who's looking bad here?

In other words, none of this would even be a story if the media did its homework. Presumably, with thousands of retired military officers to choose from, the networks should have had little trouble recruiting their own independent analysts who were not being briefed and prepped by the Pentagon. All the Pentagon did, basically, was to take advantage of a media all too willing to be co-opted.

The Pentagon knows how to take care of its supporters, too [memo to businesses seeking third-party endorsements -- take notes]:

In interviews, participants described a powerfully seductive environment -- the uniformed escorts to Mr. Rumsfeld's private conference room, the best government china laid out, the embossed name cards, the blizzard of PowerPoints, the solicitations of advice and counsel, the appeals to duty and country, the warm thank you notes from the secretary himself.

"Oh, you have no idea," Mr. Allard said, describing the effect. "You're back. They listen to you. They listen to what you say on TV." It was, he said, "psyops on steroids" -- a nuanced exercise in influence through flattery and proximity. "It's not like it's, 'We'll pay you $500 to get our story out,' " he said. "It's more subtle."

If there's anything that stinks in this scenario, it's that these analysts not only had network gigs, most were also slurping at the trough of military contracts, consulting with military contractors and bragging about the "inside access" their analyst role afforded them. And according to the Times story, analysts who didn't keep parroting the Pentagon's talking points, or who actually dared to criticize the war, were threatened with having their access cut off.

But that's more about the inside workings of the military-industrial complex than the Pentagon's PR machinery. I suspect that these and other retired officers working the consulting game hype their connections for all they are worth, whether or not they are one of the relatively small handful who appear on TV.

  • Jon Greer

    Jon Greer has been analyzing media and PR for more than 25 years. He's been a journalist and a PR executive, and has been a featured speaker for many years at the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit, and served as Bulldog's Editorial Director for their PR University series of weekly how-to audio conferences.

    Jon provides PR services including media relations and freelance writing to clients including start-ups, law firms, corporations, investment banks and venture capital firms. In addition, Jon provides spokesperson training. Learn more about Jon's training programs at The Media Bridge.