The Navy had a severe problem with public image following the publicity of it’s handling of sexual assaults at the 1991 Tailhook convention. Each year, Navy aviators meet for the event which had become a haven for promiscuity. According to a 1992 article in Newsweek magazine, the extent of sexual misconduct at the Tailhook conventions had become legendary, despite the fact that senior Navy officials were well aware of such behavior. The article quotes one attendee as saying that then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman joined the crowd in watching a stripper at a hospitality suite during one Tailhook convention (Salholz, Waller, & King, 1992). The behavior of attendees at the 1991 convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, proved to be extreme, even by Tailhook standards, with sexual assaults on more than 80 women, including 22 Navy officers (Buchwald, Fletcher, & Roth, 1993).
One such officer assaulted at the 1991 convention was Lieutenant Paula Coughlin. She reported the incident the following day to her superior, a Rear Admiral, who told her “…that’s what you have to expect when you go up to the third deck with a bunch of drunk aviators” (Salholz et al., 1992). Coughlin filed a formal complaint with the Navy. One of the Naval Investigative Service agents working on the case repeatedly propositioned her and referred to her as “sweet-cakes” (Salholz et al., p 35). Unhappy with the progress of the Navy’s investigation of the incident, Coughlin appeared on ABC Television’s “World News Tonight” and provided interviews to the Washington Post (Boo, 1992).
After seeing her speak bluntly about the event to civilian media, more women began to come forward to tell their stories of sexual misconduct at the 1991 convention. Two days after Coughlin’s public appearance, Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett resigned. Boo writes that Garrett attended the convention, and was reportedly seen on the patio of a hospitality suite containing strippers and prostitutes.
The incident received worldwide media attention, but there was no reply from the Navy. They held steadfast to the idea that no statement could be issued while the investigation continued. Finally, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, announced that the Navy would deal harshly with any case of sexual assault or harassment. He said the incident provided insight into an institutional problem in the Navy, and outlined strong steps the service was taking to correct the problem (Navy News Release, 1993). Kelso released the statement in April of 1993, 19 months after the convention. For Coughlin and the public, it was too little, too late. Kelso requested early retirement a year after the statement, when a military judge found that he had witnessed events at the convention and had done nothing stop them (Faludi, 1994).
The ramifications of the Tailhook incident clearly describe how a public affairs problem, when not adequately addressed, can have severe implications on the public image of a military service.
The Navy’s gatekeeping strategy was intended to bolt the latch. By not releasing any official statement of the Navy’s stance on the investigation, the public perceived a cover-up. With so many high-ranking officials implicated in the case, this time the deception seemed deliberate. O’Hair, Cody (1994) describe this kind of deception, secrets, masking, and disguise as concealment.
Public Affairs eventually opened the gate when the Navy addressed the problem head-on, They accepted the fact that it employees made mistakes and also outlined, in detail, the steps being taken to address the problem. However the Navy could have made a similar statement much earlier since the service had guidance in place, even before the 1991 convention, detailing commanders’ responsibilities in preventing sexual harassment (Buchwald et al., 1993).
Had the Navy, at the very onset of the controversy, based its public affairs response on those standards, and provided a statement as strong as the 1993 release, it could, conceivably have maintained its public image, and headed off the serious public affairs problem that eventually brought down the civilian and military leaders of the Navy.
Because of the scope of the hierarchy involved in the case, the Navy delayed release of any information about the case. Public Affairs never even received the key to the gate of information. As in the city of Verdun, when the battle was over, public affairs was left with nothing but to clean up the debris. This case showed the importance of knowing communicative strategies and their usefulness in future incidents. It is that use of communication theory that will shape the case in the public eye today, the ongoing court martial of the Army’s top enlisted man.
The Army appears to have learned a lesson from the Navy’s mistake of being closed-mouthed about Tailhook. So far, officials have done an effective job of agenda setting. They suspended McKinney from his duties as the Army’s ranking enlisted soldier and denied his request for retirement. The latter action allowed the Army to avoid the appearance of a double standard at the time, because Army lawyers sought prosecution of several male drill sergeants accused of similar sexual misconduct with female trainees (Schmitt, 1997).
In February 1997, the Army accused Former Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney of sexually harassing Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster, his former public affairs aide, in April 1996, an incident that forced her to reluctantly retire from the Army that August (Schmitt, 1997). Hoster said she decided to come forward after the Army appointed McKinney as a member of the senior review panel on sexual harassment formed in the wake of the sex scandal uncovered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in November 1996 (Schmitt, 1997). Former Secretary of the Army, Togo West, Jr., charged the panel to review the Army’s sexual harassment policies. In early February, 1997, Hoster joined two Republican U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in criticizing the Army’s decision to allow McKinney to continue in his normal duties during the investigation. The three said it was not enough that the service removed McKinney from the panel appointed to oversee the Army’s policies against sexual harassment. They contended that it was unfair to allow McKinney to continue to perform his duties while Army drill sergeants, also accused of sexual harassment in unrelated incidents, had been immediately suspended from their duties. The Army suspended McKinney two weeks after the complaint(Jet, 1997).
Since Hoster made her allegations against McKinney, five other military women have lodged complaints of harassment and sexual assault against him. Other charges against McKinney include adultery, indecent assault, maltreatment of subordinates, and obstruction of justice.
In early June 1997, McKinney submitted a request for retirement, putting the Army in a quandary over how to deal with his request (Schmitt, 1997). Some senior Army officials worried about creating the perception of a double standard if they allowed McKinney to leave the service with an honorable discharge while Army lawyers prosecuted several male drill sergeants accused of similar sexual misconduct with female trainees. The Army denied McKinney’s retirement request.
McKinney has categorically denied the charges in sworn statements and public comments. He did not testify during a lengthy pre-trial hearing last summer but may take the stand during his court-martial, which began in early February (Gross, 1998). If convicted, he faces a maximum of 55 ½ years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, and the loss of his retirement benefits.
The case raises two major public affairs problems for the Army. First is the fact that McKinney was not immediately suspended from his duties, as the drill sergeants were (Jet, 1997). The difference in treatment creates the appearance in the media and among the public of unequal treatment of individuals facing the same types of charges.
Secondly, the Army’s doubt about how to deal with McKinney’s retirement request raised another issue. Senior Army leaders decided to avoid the double standard and not allow McKinney to leave the service with an honorable discharge. The fact senior Army officials wavered in this decision at all, again considering a perception of unequal treatment, serves to cast the Army in a bad light with the press and the public. This case brings to light questions all public affairs offices must ask themselves in order to secure their role as media liaisons.