To investigate the relationship between the presence of a Joint Crisis Information Team and the way the media frames its reporting during contingencies, one must first lay a basis for the argument. This paper will focus on the literature of four perspectives: theoretical, civilian crisis management, military doctrinal, and historical, to investigate this relationship. In addition, the following literature review serves to establish the military’s necessity to attempt to control the way the media tells the story.
"The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for [them]." (Bernays, 1928, p. 92)
In order to empirically investigate the impact of military public affairs response in crisis situations, it is important to understand salient theoretical perspectives in the field of communication. Of primary significance is Walter Lippman’s Agenda-Setting Theory. Lippman, a prominent American journalist, first introduced the function of agenda setting in 1921. He asserted that in a mass communications setting, the public responds not to actual events in the environment, but to "the pictures in our heads" which create a "pseudo-environment." Lippman’s (1921) interpretation of this environment alluded to the purposeful role of the media:
For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And altogether we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. (Lippman, 1921, p. 18)
As responsible representatives of society, the burden of creating a factual and realistic environment lies in the hands, the cameras and in the satellite telecommunications capabilities of civilian and military media officials. Constant advancements in technology and mass media accessibility have drastically increased the variety of permutations and combinations available to those seeking information during a period of external crisis or military engagement (Kennedy, 1993). In the context of military crisis communications, what organization is more knowledgeable, experienced or qualified than military public affairs to accurately lay the foundation for construction of vital public information?
The events leading up to the 1990 Gulf War provided a powerful "natural experiment" for examining the effects of news media on the crystallization and development of public opinion. Of particular importance is the effect of framing, or the connection between qualitative features of news presentations and the subsequent public opinion generated. Typically, broadcast networks frame issues in either episodic or thematic terms.
The episodic frame depicts public issues in terms of concrete instances or specific events. Visually, episodic reports create a more lasting image with viewers. Thematic news frames, in contrast, place public issues in some general or abstract context. The purpose of thematic pieces is to provide background information or focused excerpts from a past event.
Analysis of Persian Gulf War media coverage found that the ability of major networks to provide current and sustained episodic coverage, had a direct impact on the maintenance of positive public opinion with respect to the war effort (Iyengar & Simon, 1993). While articles focusing on the relationship between the military and the media admit that a troubled "embrace" continues to exist, most authors do not seek to solve the problem, but merely to make it more manageable (Trainor, 1998; Castelveter, 1993; Hughes, 1992; Katz, 1992; Kirtley, 1992; & Wilermuth, 1992). It would be a tremendous strategic oversight for military officials to deny the influence of media framing on public opinion in crisis or wartime situations.
Another mass communication theory with relevant applications to the problem of military and media relations is McCormack’s (1961) Information Manipulation Theory. In concert with Lippman’s (1921) Agenda-Setting Theory, this theoretical perspective further investigates the role of the media in generating the public view and/or opinion of reality.
As consumers of mediated information, members of the public expect that news messages will satisfy their personal requirements for the amount of information that should be provided (quantity), the veracity of information presented (quality), the relevance of information within conversational context, and the clarity of information provided within messages. McCormack (1961) argues that the "unique function of mass media is to provide both to industry and to society a coherence, a synthesis of experience, an awareness of the whole, which does not undermine the specialization which reality requires" (p. 344).
The concern of military public affairs officials is that a mediated reality of war as presented by civilian sources may satisfy the public’s requirements for information and entertainment at the expense of realistic representation. From the perspective of civilian mass media sources, "selling" the war as a method of obtaining ratings and generating financial reward is not always synonymous with winning the war (Roach, 1993). Acknowledgment of this phenomenon by military public affairs officials was evident in information provided to media sources during the Gulf War:
And what did the Gulf War sell? We were inundated with images of technology: powerful and exotic aircraft taking to the sky night after night: tanks speeding across the desert, stopping only to shoot at (and always hit) a distant target. In case we missed the point, narrators assured us that the bombs were ‘smart’ and the strikes ‘surgical.’… The meaning? That this war was distant, remote and quite separate from our daily lives - which may have been why some people tried so hard to "sell" the war to others, through yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, and even paid outdoor advertising. (Fore, 1991, p. 52)
The final theoretical perspective employed in the construction of this paper is Charles Berger’s (1975) Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Introduced in the field of interpersonal communications, URT asserts that all individuals seek self-awareness and knowledge of others. Methods used to reduce interpersonal uncertainty include interrogation and self-disclosure. Passive and active strategies of obtaining information about others and the communicative environment are activated and constantly reassessed. Berger’s (1975) research concluded that individual’s who develop relationships sufficient to reduce initial uncertainties will maintain greater communicative competence. For the purposes of this applied research, URT is used to justify a need for cohesive unit training within the public affairs community. This theoretical perspective is also useful in establishing the need for inter-service training and communication within a mobile public affairs force, prior to deployment. As an operational maxim, applying Berger’s URT to the interaction of military public affairs officials with the media may lend itself to enhanced communications and greater trust between the two organizations.
Civilian Crisis Management Perspective
"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." (Mark Twain cited in Frohlichstein, 1998)
One must not forget that the world is a small place. This is a tenant of Flanagan (1995) that serves as a wake-up call to all businesses. Thanks to CNN, the Internet, fax machines and other electronic means of rapidly and cheaply disseminating information, corporations today live in a fishbowl of accountability and exposure. This warning is equally important for the military, especially when it is called upon to defend the nation’s interests around the world. The basis for Flanagan’s (1995) argument is that a conflict or situation that might have been isolated can become a regional, national or international story within hours.
If the way businesses communicate during a crisis is similar to the way the military communicates during a contingency, then perhaps their respective need for a coordinated crisis response plan is also similar. To this end, the writings of several experts in the field of crisis communication have also been studied to discover if such a plan is necessary.
Flanagan (1995) asserts that crisis planning should be done before a situation arises because its absence means being unprepared for the unexpected. Regardless of the business, all enterprises should expect the unexpected, and it is how they communicate during this crisis that often determines their future prosperity.
Frohlichstein (1998) also examined crisis communication and concluded that executives should be prepared to handle media inquiries in times of crisis instead of hiding and not granting interviews. Umansky (1993) studied failures in crisis communication and characterized the situation that follows the ducking of the media as a loss of control. The media feeding frenzy that follows is caused by the existence of a "big" story that everyone wants a piece of. He also warns that loss of control results in a polished corporate identity that "is suddenly chewed up and spit out by reporters, politicians, competitors, commentators, regulators and other bystanders, many of whom know little about you and care even less."
Frohlichstein (1998) added that the inability to communicate effectively leads to the airing of the crisis without the management's side of the story which could result in negative coverage. Aukofer and Lawrence (n.d.) concluded that positive media coverage not only develops public awareness and support, it has the side benefit of enhancing morale by informing families and friends of the activities of their troops. Therefore, a loss of control can be disastrous for a military involved in operations overseas, because negative press can result in a loss of support on the home front.
As Frohlichstein (1998) previously stated, if no effort is made to communicate with the media during a crisis, the story reported will be devoid of the company position and in some cases devoid of truth. He asserts that once a decision is made to begin crisis communication to spread the truth, it can be too late because as Mark Twain said: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
Frohlichstein (1998) argues that to combat this situation, companies should prepare a proactive crisis communications plan that gets as much information as possible about the incident to the media as fast as possible. He contends this type of plan is a necessity and needs to reflect an understanding of the media. This understanding stems from the importance of certain types of media, especially television news.
In a December 1996 Harris poll, 34% of Americans said local television news was their most important source of information. An additional 17% said network television news is their most important source, while 10% called CNN their major news source (Frohlichstein, 1998). Adding in television newsmagazines programs and radio, three out of four people rely on electronic media as the most important news source. Frohlichstein (1998) suggests that understanding electronic media means realizing that television needs pictures and people, not the obligatory written statement. In addition, he argues that even if information is presented in the proper format it is essential that it be distributed as quickly as possible.
Umansky (1993) asserts that a hallmark of unsuccessful crisis management wasted time, that may be critical. He cites the Exxon Valdez, TWA Flight 800, and Jack-in-the-Box incidents as examples of this. He also claims that in lacking a plan, the company spends the first hours, perhaps days, trying to get a crisis management and communications system in place. By that time, however, the crisis has gotten away from the from the company and it never catches up. Duhe and Zoch (1994) take it a further step, asserting that in a crisis a company should go public in the first three to six hours after the news breaks, or it is dead.
Urmansky (1993) claims the benefits of devising and implementing a proactive crisis communications plan are clear. In the end, the media wins by getting the story, the company wins by getting its message to the public, and the public wins by getting a better sense of the "true" story. Duhe and Zoch (1994) conclude that companies must realize that fears can only be fought with facts. Furthermore, the initial facts may set the agenda for the entire incident.
The need for a proactive crisis communication plan is not exclusive to the business world. Aukofer and Lawrence (n.d.) conclude that the majority of problems experienced by the news media at the hands of the military in conflicts over the last dozen years have happened primarily because of poor planning. They argue that this lack of planning also caused a lack of effective top-down communication, over-reaction in the field to perceived press hostility in the leadership, and plain old incompetence.
Military Doctrinal Perspective
"Effective public relations is like a guard rail on a cliff, not the ambulance at the bottom" (Sconyers, 1995)
The evolution of military crisis communications runs parallel to and finds strong similarities with that of corporate communications in the business world. A comparison of experiences demonstrates more than a passing correlation for the need for strong institutional programs, policies, training and readiness in dealing with the media in communicating with target audiences before, during and after crisis, conflict, accidents or mishaps. (Joint Pub 1, 1995)
One of the basic tenants common to all military doctrine in training and preparing for conflict and operations is for units and organizations to train as they would fight (Joint Pub 1, 1995). Each of the component services (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) are charged with preparing, training, maintaining and sustaining units, organizations and individuals for joint operations and contingencies as required by the National Command Authority (NCA). In this regard, doctrine for employment of forces and assets is a statement of how these forces and assets will be used in the execution of wartime or other contingency missions.
The Department of Defense has embraced changes required by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and is quickly aligning joint doctrine to reflect the need for cross-service cooperation in the prosecution of war and operations other than war (Joint Pub 1, 1995). In this effort, the component services have agreed to a framework for employment of public affairs in war and operations other than war. This general framework is not revolutionary in content, but does accept and acknowledge the far-reaching effects technology has made in the coverage of military operations by an ever-growing international, national, and local media. This technological and societal effect is described as the Global information Environment (GIE) and encompasses the Military Information Environment as a major area of concern (Joint Pub 1, 1995). The Army further refines these concepts and state that there are "an intricate set of informational infrastructures which have evolved to link individuals, groups and nations into a comprehensive network that allows for the increasing rapid flow of information too all elements having access to the network" (FM 100-6, 1996). These networks include, but are not limited to the growing numbers of national and international media (television, radio, print, and Internet).
Brig. Gen. Ronald T. Sconyers, Chief of Air Force Public Affairs, explains the existing information ages as a "worldwide information explosion" (1996, p. 2) which requires public affairs practitioners and professionals to look for new and dynamic ways at communicating with target audiences. Sconyers recommends that existing capabilities need to be enhanced to develop a synergistic relationship between commanders, units, and public affairs assets. A proactive PA position will provide commanders and units with a preventative capability, rather than a reactive asset.
While each service shades the doctrinal definition to meet unique capabilities, roles, and missions, Army doctrine neatly summarizes the need for readiness as "on the day of battle, soldiers and units will fight as well or as poorly as the are trained" (FM 100-5, 1993, p1-5). Units and organizations that train together and have high unit cohesion, fare far better than those lacking in these regards.
According to General Sconyers, "public affairs has become a primary weapon in modern warfare" (1995, p. 7). Accurate, timely, and effective public affairs provides a strong deterrence against potential adversaries by showing that America’s forces are well-trained, equipped, led, and ready for rapid employment. Further, public affairs is the main effort in keeping the American people, our allies, and our internal audiences informed with consistent, accurate and timely portrait of our forces, capabilities, and operations. This essential link of information is a critical factor in maintaining morale in the field, and retaining or buttressing public support within the general public for ongoing military operations.
In Doctrine for Public Affairs in Joint Operations (Joint Pub 3-61, 1997), doctrine, responsibilities, operational requirement, and resource requirements are established for future joint military operations and contingencies. This doctrine requires that PA assets be included and prepared for employment in all force structures to support combatant commands’ operations in a joint environment. It further states that "joint and multinational PA activities require personnel, transportation and communications, and technical resources. These assets are essential to the conduct of PA" (p. IV-1).
Understanding the constraints of modern U.S. forces, joint PA doctrine also recognizes that organic PA assets from a given organization will be inadequate to meet heightened media interest during periods of crisis or deployment (Joint Pub 3-61, 1997). This document calls for military operational planners to prepare for contingency, crisis, and conflict scenarios by identifying and allocating personnel and resources to deploy with joint or combined task forces in support of unilateral or multinational missions or operations.
Sconyers states that "public affairs must be combat ready, mobile, technically prepared and expertly trained to deal with communication issues in a multitude of scenarios from full combat in hostile climates to relative comfort and safety in exercises on our home turf" (1995, p. 7).
To this end, joint doctrine calls for PA planning and preparation as essential to any operation (Joint Pub 3-61). This doctrine strongly suggests that PA assets need to be organized and trained as units with common experiences and cohesive team frameworks to meet the expanding needs and challenges of the GIE. Experience from deployments and operations over the past ten years provide a rich field of research and study regarding the effectiveness, or lack thereof, for PA planning and execution. A critical review of past operations and actions tends to bear this generalization out, and history is replete with examples of ill-trained and prepared forces finding grief in action.
"We cannot escape history." (Abraham Lincoln)
News correspondents from democratic nations first began covering wars early in the second half of the nineteenth century, and from the very beginning the presence of reporters on the battlefield caused strained relations between the press and the military. In 1854, reports from a London Times correspondent covering combat in the Crimea – including the ill-fated charge of the light brigade – so aroused the British middle classes that the ruling government was brought down in a vote of no-confidence. The unseating of a prime minister by a newspaperman was a lesson government never forgot (Hammond, 1988).
The American Civil War was widely covered in both image and text. The famous photographer Mathew Brady joined federal forces at the battles of Bull Run and Gettysburg. But leaders in both the Union and Confederate armies were unhappy with the war coverage they were getting from the press. Gen. Robert E. Lee complained to his secretary of war that newspapers in the south were printing stories that contained information potentially useful to the enemy.
On the federal side, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had a similar complaint, eventually banning newspaper correspondents from his lines and threatening to punish anyone who published information about his forces (Hooper, 1982). The general believed that far more harm than good was done to the Union cause by war correspondents, calling them "dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan" (Ewing, 1991, p. 19). The complaints from Union military leaders finally caused Gen. George McClellan to offer the press some voluntary guidelines (Hammond, 1988).
The First World War changed the way governments handled the press in future wars. It was a conflict the likes of which humanity had never seen before, massing armies, economies, and peoples against one another. News now was a strategic commodity that could be used to buttress civilian morale. As a consequence, governments could not afford to give its citizens the whole truth. They softened bad news by censoring facts and trying to cast the war in a noble context. The Allies, for example, called World War I "the war to end all the wars." The press, for its part, cooperated by accepting censorship and concentrating on morale-building human interest stories (Hammond, 1988).
In the First World War, however, military leaders never really accepted war correspondents as allies in the conflict. This attitude persisted in World War II, although it was not as vehement as in the first global conflict (Hudson & Stanier, 1998). In the Second World War, most reporters were personally committed to the Allies’ political objectives, and the military routinely allowed them to join units, talk to the troops, and fly on bombing and supply missions. As they had done in World War I, reporters engaged in self-censorship, mainly to avoid the delays caused by having to rewrite stories (Woodward, 1993).
Each country that was involved in the war treated its press differently. At the beginning of the conflict in 1939, the French immediately invoked drastic censorship. The Germans, on the other hand, allowed correspondents from neutral countries to report more or less freely, but making sure that they saw nothing that could be damaging to the Nazi side. The British also practiced censorship, but they did allow the press to report on the Battle of Britain and the London blitz. Although British officials resisted at first, they soon discovered that allowing coverage of these events was a public relations coup. Now the whole world could see the results of German barbarity, and the British were portrayed as a brave and determined people (Hammond, 1998).
In general, American and British correspondents cooperated with the armed forces throughout the war. The military reciprocated by making sure that reporters got a good picture of what was happening in the conflict. The only requirement was that newsmen submit their work for censorship. Reporters complained, however, that the American people received news of the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea far too long after the events had occurred. Despite their complaints, correspondents suppressed the story of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., slapping a shell-shocked soldier. The supreme allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had requested that the incident be buried because he was concerned that it might have been used as propaganda by the enemy (Hammond, 1998).
The Korean War brought more changes to the military-press relationship. Because he had no facilities to censor news reports, General of the Army Douglas McArthur, instead, gave out voluntary guidelines as had been done by General McClellan in the Civil War. The military, however, failed to specify what news was of value to the enemy, and as competition heated up among reporters, the system of voluntary censorship quickly fell by the wayside. In fact, the situation became so severe that breaches of security by the press occurred almost daily. At first, these violations were not taken very seriously because the North Koreans were in retreat. But when the situation became desperate with the entry of Communist China into the war, McArthur was forced to impose censorship (Hammond, 1988).
Censorship reduced the number of security violations but did not eliminate them completely. Reporters could still file their stories from Tokyo or the United States. On June 18, 1951, for example, a news magazine published a map detailing the order of battle for the entire U. S. Eighth Army. And some reporters, in order to scoop the competition, even worked with a correspondent from a Paris communist newspaper to obtain North Korean photos, which were later published, of well-fed American prisoners of war. Military officers, on the other hand, contributed to the situation, provoking correspondents by withholding legitimate news from them (Hammond, 1988).
Vietnam, the next major conflict, was largely an "uncensored war," one in which reporters were allowed to roam freely and had wide access to individual units in the field (Woodward, 1993). It was also the first television war. For the first time in history, a war was brought right into American living rooms. This broad, unencumbered access by the press coupled with the visual impact of television gave the news media a power it had not known before. "The media provided the prime, and at times the only, source of information on which public opinion was formed in the first place" (Hudson & Stanier, 1998, p. 104).
So, whereas in previous wars the military had used the press to shape the way the conflict was presented to the American people, in the Vietnam Era it was the media that decided how the war should be framed. The media decided when and how information should be presented, and "the vast majority of the public was conditioned day by day through the media alone" (Hudson & Stanier, 1998, p. 104).
Critics of the media and its performance during the Vietnam War have charged that many members of the press failed to realize that they were being used by Hanoi to promote North Vietnam’s propaganda. Kennedy (1993), for example, notes that a New York Times reporter visiting North Vietnam incorporated in his first story an article supplied by the communists. The North’s article charged the United States with deliberately bombing dikes in order to flood their country. The reporter used this information but failed to attribute it to Hanoi (Kennedy, 1993). In another example, the press misled the American people by portraying the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive as a communist victory. Hooper (1982) argues that the media misjudged the situation but then would not admit they had been wrong.
The number of correspondents covering the war grew as the conflict escalated. Forty reporters were counted in 1964, and by the end of February 1968 there was a record high of 636 (Hammond, 1988). The growing number of correspondents, some of whom were inexperienced reporters, caused an increase in competition to get the news first. Newsmen, under pressure from their home offices, wrestled for every scrap of information, and the feeling of camaraderie that had existed earlier among news people was gone. The sharpened competition loosened standards so much that information that was of value to the enemy might have been released (Hammond, 1988).
The media became a constant source of irritation to the U. S. mission in Saigon, known as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV. The stories filed by the press corps became a nuisance to the command. Senior officials in Washington paid excessive attention to the reports and questioned mission officials on every story that could potentially upset the American public or Congress. MACV was thus forced to investigate and justify events that in earlier wars would have been taken for granted. Even minor details, when viewed through the eyes of a television camera, took on national significance (Hammond, 1988).
Since there was no practical censorship program, military officials could not do much to control the situation. Instead, they dealt with problems on a case-by-case basis. The number of accredited correspondents also over burdened MACV Office of Information facilities (Hammond, 1988). The U. S. State Department set up a separate organization called the Joint U. S. Public Affairs Office, which served a information and propaganda function, but as the war wore on that organization was not looked on by the press as a source of credible information (Woodward, 1993).
A huge credibility gap developed during the war, with journalists on one side and the president and military commanders on the other. The daily afternoon briefings involving journalists and representatives of the Joint U. S. Public Affairs Office were called the "five-o’clock follies." The sessions became, for many Americans, "a notorious symbol of purposeful equivocation" (Woodward, 1993).
The information situation in Vietnam was made worse by the parochial pride of the military services themselves. Because they were restricted concerning the type of information they could release, some individual members of the various branches grew to believe that the sacrifices of their fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, or Marines were going unnoticed by the American public. So they leaked information to selected journalists about what was actually taking place (Hammond, 1988).
Part of the problem was that the MACV Information Office was the sole release point for news of the war. The public affairs offices of the various services flooded the command with news releases on all aspects of their services’ activities, but they later learned that the Information Office was holding releases that the staff felt were too blatantly self-serving (Hammond, 1988).
The media coverage of the Vietnam War and the victory of the communists in the end created a distrust of the press in military circles that endures to this day. Additionally, one author claims that many U. S. military officers have grown to hate the press (Kennedy, 1993). Others blame the media for the loss of the war, claiming that television coverage caused the American public to withdraw its support for the U. S. armed forces and eventually made the president and Congress change their minds (Nohrstedt, 1992).
Critics also argue that competition among news outlets, the media’s desire for sensationalism, the way stories were presented, and how editors handled the pieces – all contributed to the image of the war that news people presented to the American people (Hooper, 1982).
Whatever the truth of these claims may be, one thing for certain is that the Vietnam experience changed the press-military relationship. In most conflicts occurring after Vietnam, the defense departments not only of the United States but of other Western democracies as well have used a completely new policy for dealing with journalists (Nohrstedt, 1992).
That new policy became evident with the Falklands War, in which British forces wrested the Falkland Islands back from Argentina. The South American country had long claimed the islands as its property and landed forces there to enforce ownership. In Vietnam journalists had been free to move about, but in the Falklands campaign only thirty international reporters were allowed to cover the war on the battlefield. They were transported there by the British Royal Navy, on condition that they sign a contract agreeing to complete military censorship. The media policy established by British forces in the Falklands may have inspired the U. S. Defense Department to follow suit, developing a new and harder strategy for media relations during military conflict (Nohrstedt, 1992).
The first test of the new policy took place during Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983. The operation’s objective was to rescue American medical students thought to be held by a pro-Cuba, anti-U.S. government. The invasion occurred without the press, and was just about over before reporters were allowed to fly to the island (Woodward, 1993).
No plans were made to include the media in Urgent Fury and they were excluded from the first two days of action. The government eventually made the decision to allow a pool of reporters, from nearly 400 journalists waiting on the island of Barbados, to fly into Grenada. An 82nd Airborne Division public affairs team coordinated media support and arranged as much access as possible within security constraints (Willey, 1991).
The media-military experience during Operation Urgent Fury resulted in deliberations between military officials and news executives on how to arrange coverage of smaller combat operations in a world no longer dominated by East-West tensions. After the meetings, the Sidle Panel was formed to establish a set of recommendations governing press-military planning in future operations. The panel was named after Army Gen. Winant Sidle, who oversaw the deliberations with retired military officers and journalists (Woodward, 1993).
Panel recommendations included that public affairs planning for military operations be conducted concurrently with operational planning, and that public affairs planning include sufficient equipment and qualified military personnel whose functions it is to assist correspondents in covering the operation adequately (Woodward, 1993). One of the results of the panel’s recommendations was the creation of the Department of Defense’s national media pool program (Willey, 1991).
The pool program has met with mixed reviews. After Operation Just Cause, the American invasion of Panama, media representatives complained that the pool had been called out too late and did not arrive in time to cover the decisive U. S. assaults in the brief conflict. Another complaint was the size of the pool, restricted to sixteen members (Hoffman, 1991). Pools were used again, in the Persian Gulf. Out of about 1,000 accredited reporters and technicians who covered the war from Saudi Arabia, no more than 126 were ever assigned to pools for coverage. And during the three days of combat, about 250 journalists were allowed to join combat pools (Woodward, 1993).
This historical review of the media and military suggests that there will always be an adversarial relationship between the two. The media’s job is to get the story to the American people and the military’s is to fight battles and win. The military has to conduct war in a way that causes more damage to the enemy than the enemy can inflict on U. S. forces.
To do that, the United States needs to have an advantage over the opposing force, learning about the enemy’s weaknesses and plans while denying them that information about the American side. The news media now has technology that enables them to instantly transmit pictures and sounds. With this ability at their command, there is always a possibility that an adversary could learn about an American action simply by watching it on CNN.
But although the media-military relationship is an adversarial one, which does not mean that it also has to be hostile. One author suggests that while the American press is entrenched in a position of power, journalists are willing to exercise self-restraint in the interests of national security. However, they must be given good reasons why that restraint is necessary (Holmes, 1986). Another argues the military and media should improve their knowledge about each other. This is particularly important in view of the fact that the number of people in the Congress and the media who have served in uniform is rapidly decreasing (Hooper, 1982).
Based on the review of literature in the four previously described perspectives, the following hypothesis has been formulated for further study:
H1: The implementation of a prompt, coordinated and salient response by military public affairs professionals during the initial stages of a rapidly developing crisis situation will positively enhance media framing.
To investigate this phenomenon, it is necessary to delve into what is meant by a prompt, coordinated, and salient response. The characteristics of such a response come from lessons learned from the private sector and their handling of crisis communication. The applications of these characteristics will be further studied by use of a survey which is discussed later in this section. Finally, the authors discuss the proposed structure for a provisional Joint Crisis Information Response Team (JCIRT) that will be implemented as part of a pilot study. The study will allow manipulation of the independent variable to a level that encompasses all of the characteristics.
Characteristics of an Effective Response
Umansky (1993) defines a crisis as an intense, unstable state resulting in decisive change. A military contingency or war is very similar and, as such, correlation can be drawn from the way businesses deal with the media in times of crisis. For the purpose of this paper, a proposed crisis management response is examined in two phases, planning and execution.
Many crisis experts, such as Stanton, (1989), agree that the first step in any effective crisis management plan is the creation of a crisis team. Stanton describes this team as a small group of quick decision makers who represent all the key crisis management functions. In military terms, this team should contain a core group of public affairs professionals that represent the full spectrum of internal and external communications.
Umansky (1993) believes the formation of a crisis team is so important that he includes it in his "eight key principles of crisis communications." He advocates not only the creation and empowerment of a crisis team, but its isolation well. Umansky (1993) recommends that this multidisciplinary task force run the crisis and let everyone else run the business. This could be translated into a military sense as a self-contained team, outside the chain of the command of those handling the contingency.
Flanagan (1995) makes a similar conclusion, stating that a crisis management team should not be put in the wrong organizational box. He states that while no hard and fast rule exists for the best type of reporting relationship, his experience does show that it is a mistake to cubbyhole the team in one segment of the company that is not representative of the whole.
Perea and Morrison (1997) performed a case study of a school district’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) whose task was ensuring the safety and the emotional well-being of people involved in a crisis. They discovered another important characteristic of an effective crisis response team, that being training. They report that because diverse nature of this type of group, unified training is essential. They also found that this training is best when it is conducted with the fire and police departments that were likely to respond to a crisis. A military analogy would be having a crisis response team train with combat units that are likely to deploy in a contingency.
Experts assert that just having a crisis plan is not enough. Stanton (1989) points to the Exxon Valdez incident as proof. He states that this particular incident reaffirmed the necessity for having a good crisis plan that's been carefully tested in the field, so as to make sure it works under actual conditions. Stanton (1989) also cites the Monsanto chemical company and its total revamping of its crisis plan following the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. The changes came as a result of realistic field training designed to test the viability of their plan under actual field conditions. Stanton (1989) reports that Monsanto’s field experience pointed to the continued need for training, as well as formalized policies on notification, media relations, and a designated crisis team.
The second phase of crisis management consists of handling of the actual crisis, or contingency in the case of the military. Frohlichstein (1998) indicates that performance during the crisis is what will be remembered, not the weeks, months, and years of planning and preparation that proceeded it. He cites the tragic crash of TWA flight 800 as a crisis communication failure. The Wall Street Journal even headlined its article "TWA's Response to Crash Is Viewed As Lesson in How Not to Handle Crisis." Frohlichstein (1998) asserts this resulted because of the initial treatment of the press. Antsy reporters were later angry when the airline issued only a terse, written statement.
According to Frohlichstein (1998), what was missing in the TWA flight 800 incident was the appearance of human emotion, an understanding of television, and a trained public relations team. He asserts that much of the bad press may have been avoided or at least lessened had someone been there, on-site to deal with the media. He points out that the lesson to be learned it for any company is to get as much information as possible, as soon as possible, to the media.
The TWA flight 800 situation has grave implications for the military because often their best public affairs officials are not available on the front lines. Lukaszweski (1997) reaffirms this premise as part of his Fundamental Communication Principles: local communication is best. He states that crisis communication should be handled as close to the site of impact or emergency as possible. This goes contrary to the notion of making military public affairs personnel available at the Pentagon during a contingency overseas.
Another essential element of crisis communication is speed. Lukaszweski (1997) states that acting quickly in communicating news of any adverse incident is a fundamental communication principles. He asserts the first hour or two are critical in getting the word out and setting the record straight. According to Lukaszweski (1997), the media can broadcast a story across the country within seconds. If press coverage is based on facts, which the company has confirmed, rather than on speculation by reporters, the news is likely to be more accurate and balanced. This principle can best be followed if during a military contingency, public affairs assets are already on scene when troops arrive, ready to get the official word out. In addition to speed, Lukaszweski (1997) indicates that proper selection of the messenger is essential. He asserts the press will do its job with or without a company's help, and a little cooperation goes a long way. However, to be able to cooperate in an appropriate manner, there first has to be knowledge of the media and some very extensive training and understanding of key messages. Again, this points to a military public affairs professional specifically trained to operate in a contingency mode.
Often during this phase of crisis communication planning, another important element is neglected, internal information. Flanagan (1995) warns that when employees do not get the message, the company speaks with too many voices and delivers the wrong message or even worse, no message at all. He advises making sure that the people who work the company understand what is going on with the organization and feel good about it. This is especially important in a military organization because the lack of information can directly lead to a breakdown in morale. As Flanagan (1995) points out, when no one knows what the CEO is thinking, it is not an effective or healthy situation.
This page last updated on July 23, 1998.
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