Media on the Battlefield - "A Nonleathal Fire"
by CPT David Connolly, Center for Army Tactics,
Public affairs (PA) and the media play a key role in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This operation proves that now, more than ever, the U.S. military must be prepared to engage the media and provide timely, factual information. This article shares some experiences with the media during Operation Enduring Freedom and the early stages of OIF. The intent is to explain, from a company/field grade point of view, how media played a part in the operations and how tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for engaging the media relate to current doctrine. This article also shares thoughts on how field-grade officers can prepare themselves to conduct media interviews in today’s environment.
GEN Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, once said, “If we do not speak for the Army, others will.” The media should be considered as a component of nonlethal fires and/or nonkinetic targeting, another tool to help accomplish the mission. The media will write their story, with or without input from the field. It only makes sense to engage the media to ensure the entire story is told. The media is a venue where Soldiers can pass along command messages that contain truthful and factual information. Soldiers have nothing to hide. However, when attempting to carry out orders within the laws of land warfare, bad things can happen. During these times, it is best to confront the media and present the military side of the story.
When integrated and synchronized with information operations (IO) efforts, PA, and the media, in particular, can be force multipliers. However, it is important to understand the difference between IO and PA operations. Both belong to the IO career field. IO uses deception and, unlike PA operations, specifically targets the enemy. PA operations must be aware of the themes and messages IO is pushing during each phase of the operation. The intent is to leverage IO. During the initial phases of OIF, the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) always ensured PA planners were involved in the IO working groups, especially the effects targeting board process. This involvement ensured that the PA officer (PAO) would bring information to the media director. The media director then would have a clear picture of the commander’s intent and what the staff was attempting to accomplish.
Armed with this knowledge, the media director could prioritize which of the thousands of media queries to work on, while still maintaining a level of fairness and equity to all reporters. (As an example, prior to crossing the line of departure [LD], IO was pushing themes to the enemy concerning capitulation. Knowing this, the media director pushed reporters out to units responsible for dealing with large numbers of enemy prisoners of war to show the enemy how they would be fed, clothed, and provided shelter.)
There is always a tendency to overclassify information to avoid speaking to the media. There are essentially two things you always want to protect: timing and intentions. You must ask yourself if the information you are providing to the media will give an adversary something they can use against you. If operations security (OPSEC) or safety concerns make it impossible to support a media request, then simply say so. Reporters must understand when they can write or speak about what they see. Units were very successful during the decisive combat phase of OIF in allowing reporters access to command centers. (The practice of allowing reporters in command centers will be discussed later.)
“Go ugly early” is a phrase sometimes used in PA. Bad things happen in war. There were nearly 700 embedded reporters with units prior to crossing the LD. They saw and heard everything. There were many times when something bad happened, and Soldiers were unsure how to respond when a reporter was on the scene. There was an incident near the Umm Qasr area where several civilians were injured by coalition fire. An embedded reporter captured the scene as British and U.S. troops attended to the injured. Initially, the troops shouted at the reporter to get back, but eventually allowed him to continue to film as long as he remained out of the way. The images of the Soldiers’ faces told the story. They were concerned that they had injured innocent civilians on the battlefield, but the film showed that the primary concern at that point was to provide medical attention. The embedded reporter had a right to be there to do his job, which was to report the activity. The unit could have gained even more leverage by engaging the reporter (by way of a short stand-up interview) with a leader on the scene who could have released known information and delivered a command message. The message could have included sympathy for the injured and how the coalition makes every attempt to avoid civilian casualties, followed by basic, releasable facts. This situation proves that Soldiers must be able to articulate their story on the spot without violating OPSEC. In order to do this, PA must be incorporated into home-station training.
The best-case scenario is when Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are the spokespersons, not the PAO. All Soldiers must be prepared to answer questions pertaining to their area of responsibility (AOR). Third Infantry Division had the benefit of a great deal of training prior to crossing the LD. They were on rotation for Operation Desert Spring in the fall of 2002. The division began “training embeds,” where reporters were embedded with units for a three-to-four-day period. This training gave the Soldiers an opportunity to become comfortable having reporters present 24/7 as they carried out their duties. The reporters saw it all the good, the bad, and the ugly. The reporters also learned how to do their job in the harsh desert conditions. They began to learn how their equipment would work, how to move with a unit, and so on. The benefit from this experience was evident when the division crossed the LD with the embeds because there were very few problems associated with this new relationship.
Training and experience dealing with the media were not the only issues. Initially, a Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) was not established in Baghdad. There were problems with reporters using press badges issued in Kuwait to attempt to get through checkpoints in Baghdad. There were two types of badges issued in Kuwait: one for embeds and one for non-embeds. The badges issued to non-embeds in Kuwait were not intended for use in Iraq and were only to be used during coordinated opportunities through the Kuwait CPIC. The CFLCC made a conscious decision not to use badges in Baghdad at the beginning of the war. Reporters knew their way around the city and did not need PAO escort. At that time, they only needed information on where to go to cover certain activities. As time went on and a CPIC was established, badges were issued and controlled.
Preparing for Interviews
Today’s military members must be skilled at preparing for media interviews. There are generally two types of interviews to prepare for: the taped, stand-up interview and the print interview. During these interviews, no one hears the question, only the response. Press conferences are usually reserved for those higher in the chain of command. Even at the CFLCC level, a decision was made initially not to conduct press conferences because Department of Defense (DOD) would be conducting press conferences in Washington, D.C., and Central Command would conduct a daily press conference in Qatar.
Preparing for an interview is basically a negotiation. Stress to the reporter your need for information before you begin. Ask yourself what the story can do for your unit and the mission. Think about what phase of the operation you are in. What themes and messages is IO pushing? How does this story help leverage them? Is this the right time to do the story? For example, prior to crossing the LD in Kuwait, you may not want to do a story about how you are going to fight oil well fires. Do not give the enemy that information yet. After you cross the LD and have passed that phase, then proceed with the story.
Many reporters will want “fluff” stories. These are fine, but given the choice, prioritize stories depending on what phase of the operation you are in. If you have not crossed the LD yet, a story about Soldiers training in the desert should be given emphasis over a story about women in the Army. Remember, you need to send a message to the world and the enemy that you are trained and ready. You can do a story about women in the Army later. Be polite, honest, helpful, and friendly to journalists, but remember the mission and Soldiers on the ground. How can you help them?
When preparing for an interview, do what you do in other military operations: gather intelligence. Ask questions such as, “What is the story about?” What angle is the reporter after? What aspects of a subject is the reporter interested in? Is the reporter talking to anyone else? Will you have to augment information he has already gotten? Will you have to refute information? How knowledgeable is the reporter on the subject? What does he know about the military? What type of stories does this reporter typically write? Are they pro- or anti-military? Pro- or anti-war?
Gather background information on reporters; get their biographies. Consider asking the journalists to send questions to you. You may have to gather facts from other subject-matter experts on the staff to help you articulate your side or the rest of the story. Asking for questions also helps you prepare for what might be asked during the interview. Brainstorm every question you think might be asked, especially the difficult ones. Have a response for all questions.
If you cannot do the interview, tell the reporters why. More times than not, they will understand. For example, in Baghdad a news crew had gotten information on an effort to find a pilot downed in the 1991 Gulf War. CFLCC would often get off-the-wall requests such as this. However, after some investigation, it was learned that a team was, in fact, investigating the whereabouts of missing Navy CDR Michael Scott Speicher. For obvious reasons (timing and intentions), doing the story at that time would jeopardize the investigation. After a meeting between the news crew and the investigating team, it was agreed to wait until a time when the information could be released without risking the investigation.
Know what senior leaders are saying about your operation. This helps you anticipate questions. If you have access to the Internet, review recent DOD transcripts. Chances are the same questions will be asked at your level. You do not have to regurgitate the Secretary of Defense’s responses, but you can ensure that your messages are in line and focused on how things are from your foxhole. Military leaders must be aware of what is being said to avoid their comments being taken out of context. For example, if the President said yesterday, “There are indications that foreign fighters are involved in conducting these attacks,” and you say, “We have no indications of foreign fighter involvement,” it would appear that you are not on the same sheet of music. If you knew what the President’s statement was, you could have rephrased your response to more accurately articulate your message. The President is speaking for the entire country. Perhaps in your specific AOR there are no indications of foreign fighters. You could have said, “In our area, there are no indications … .” This way, you can avoid being taken out of context. Just being aware is the start point.
Know current events. If you are doing an interview tomorrow, what happened in the news today that may relate to that interview? How does that event impact what you are going to talk about? Remember, you are the military to some journalists, no matter what the topic. Stay in your lane and speak to what you know.
Conducting the Interview
(For the purpose of this topic, the focus will be on stand-up, taped interviews where the question is never heard, the most common situation for most Soldiers.)
The interview itself is all about control. You want it; the reporter wants it. You have to learn how to structure effective answers and control the interview. Do not be question-driven; be message-driven. The trick is to use your messages as guideposts and not repeated phrases. This is where skill, preparation, and experience come in. You should be trying to articulate command messages that will positively influence the outcome of your mission. Use the media as a “nonlethal fire.” Help raise the morale of that young E-4 on the checkpoint. If you have the information and it is releasable, by all means give it, but consider what other information to deliver to tell the remainder of the story.
Structure effective answers. You are engaging the media not only to respond to their questions, but also to deliver a message about your mission that is important for the world to understand. Again, you must ask yourself how you can help Soldiers on the ground by providing information to the media. To do this, you need to structure effective answers or responses. You should come to the interview with about three or four messages that you want to deliver. Think of each message as a pyramid.
The top of the pyramid shows that you should state your message. This is your response to the first question. For a taped stand-up interview, it does not matter what the question is. You should deliver your most important message first. That way, if you are interrupted later, the message is already out. No one will hear the question on a taped interview. Many times, even if a journalist comes to you with a specific question in mind, if you deliver a clearly articulated message, they will use it. You may tell them something that they did not know. It may look and sound so good on tape that the affiliate’s editors decide to use it as their sound bite.
After delivering your message, you then need to support your message. Provide an explanation, evidence that supports your initial statement (middle of the pyramid). At this point provide facts, key statistics, description of a certain program, or a supporting argument or rationale. For example, to support a statement made about what you are doing in western Iraq, you can talk about how many patrols you have conducted, number of arrests made, and food and water delivered. If your position statement is that you are doing great things, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, back the statement up with facts the media may have overlooked.
The bottom of the pyramid is where you further expand and illustrate your message. Give a prepared example or analogy. Using the example above, you might want to talk about a specific raid in one of the towns.
During this entire process your goal is to be in control of the interview. Have the reporters follow you. Hook the reporters’ interest. Be passionate about what you are talking about. Usually the reporter will follow you through one message (or pyramid). The skill comes in bridging to a second or third message. The goal is to smoothly transition to your messages so you are not repeating things. This takes practice and experience and sometimes a bit of charm. One key leader who uses this method effectively is Colin Powell. He uses textbook communication skills both during speeches and while talking with reporters. He transitions so fluidly, the untrained eye may not notice. By not sounding like a robot, he effectively communicates his messages and avoids losing credibility.
You have to continually bridge back to your messages. Always be aware which questions are out of your lane. The tendency is to attempt to answer all questions. The key is to first think about what is being asked. If it is not for you to answer, transition back on track and state, “I don’t know about that, but what I can tell you is … .” or “DOD might have more information on that, but the important thing to remember is … .” Flag or spotlight your message with phrases such as, ”First, let’s clarify the facts … .” or “Let’s look at what is really important … .”
The hook is a tool you can effectively use to control the interview. You want the reporter to follow you. The pyramid shows where you can briefly stop between your initial answer and elaboration by offering a statement such as, “You should have seen what happened yesterday...” or “We have this new approach …,” then pause long enough so the reporter can ask, “Well, what’s that?” This may not work easily every time, especially with savvy reporters, but you get the idea. Remember, you want to control the interview.
During the decisive combat phase of OIF, CFLCC embedded an unprecedented number of reporters. The reporters did not seem to mind the structure and limited freedom of movement between units. They enjoyed a certain sense of security, especially when facing many unknown circumstances. Once decisive combat was declared over, many journalists and their affiliates decided it was time to leave the unit and return to traditional reporting.
Embeds became a part of the unit. They saw military members who went out of their way to do the right thing, many times at risk to their own safety. Embeds saw that Soldiers care about limiting collateral damage. They saw hundreds of Soldiers in command posts struggling all night over target lists and the effects of striking specific targets. They saw the amount of work involved in deciding on each and every target. They saw Soldiers put their own lives in danger to save the lives of civilians on the battlefield.
The rate of information drastically increased by embedding reporters. Units did not fully appreciate how much information would be out before it went through the official reporting chain; however, units still had to be responsible with information and not officially “release” it until it was confirmed and on the significant activities report. There was a lot of pressure to confirm things, which simply could not be done on the spot. Reporters were out there and units had to let them report. Units continued to handle information in the same manner. Once the information was confirmed, Soldiers would acknowledge it; if unconfirmed, they would either refute it or state that to their knowledge it did not happen.
It is important to understand how embeds were deployed. For OIF, DOD asked CFLCC how many reporters they could handle, given the task organization. CFLCC worked with subordinate PAOs to work out specific numbers. CFLCC then provided DOD with a number. DOD took the number and allocated slots to specific affiliates and media organizations. Those affiliates and organizations assigned personnel to fill the slots. Not all the reporters assigned as embeds wanted the slot. Some had been in the AOR for months and benefitted from the training embeds. Some had never been there at all. Between DOD and CFLCC, the attempt was made to ensure the right reporters and media types were in the right places. There was a mix of different categories of media spread throughout the task force (print, TV, weekly magazines, regional/Arab media). Subordinate commands had input if they desired a specific anchor or reporter to embed with their headquarters. Some already had built a good rapport with individuals through training. The DOD embed list assigned reporters down to division level. Divisions then pushed them down, at times, to company level.
There was some disagreement with allowing reporters in command centers without a security clearance. Units were able to do this without violating OPSEC by establishing strict ground rules while still being responsible with information. Some have said, “We give away too much about our capabilities by letting in civilians without clearances.” One example given is that reporters learn too much about how far and fast we can go; however, this information is easily confirmed by events on the ground. After a unit crosses the LD and executes the mission, everybody knows their capability. What Soldiers must protect are TTP and information they will use again in the future. Just because reporters are allowed into a command center does not mean they are shown every secret in the book. You must still be responsible with information. It is challenging, but doable.
Units need to move away from the tendency to overclassify information, while still protecting sensitive information that should remain classified. That should be the trend even after the current fight is over. It is a balancing act that requires thought. Tomorrow, today’s graphics and basic plan or concept of the operation may no longer be sensitive, but some of the TTP required to build them still need to be protected. Security at the source requires that each individual understands the difference. Be conscious of the information you are providing and the situation at the time you are providing it. Protect timing, intentions, and anything that an adversary can use against you.
All reporters who desire access to forces are required to sign ground rules whether they are embedded or not. Most will abide by them because they want that access. Enforcing the ground rules, however, is sometimes difficult. Security at the source was the rule. It became impossible to watch a reporter 24/7 and was especially dangerous when reporters had satellite phones and the capability to “go live” at any moment. Geraldo Rivera is a prime example. He went live on air and basically violated all the ground rules. He was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division while they were on the move toward Baghdad. He scratched out a sketch in the sand that showed their formation, where they were, how far and fast they had traveled, and when they would be at their next location. Luckily, it does not appear that his actions ever got anyone killed.
Units always can add to the higher headquarters’ ground rules. One good rule would be to instruct the reporter never to go live unless there is a Soldier or “handler” present. This would have worked well in the situation with Geraldo Rivera. Depending on the reporter, they may have good intentions and just not realize that a certain piece of information may be sensitive at the time. Remember, reporters are just like Soldiers; you have to train them and set the standard of conduct at your level.
No ground rule is foolproof. One of the CFLCC ground rules stated that no image or photograph would be taken of a deceased coalition Soldier. The commanding general (CG) felt strongly about this. He did not want family members to learn of their loved one’s fate in the media. There was much debate with DOD on whether it should be a ground rule. An incident involving the use of a photograph of a dying 101st Airborne Soldier by a military newspaper resulted in a major debate between the CG and the newspaper. Even when you think a ground rule is self-explanatory or simply in good taste, make sure your intentions are articulated in detail.
Dealing with media effectively requires training and experience. You will not personally like every reporter you encounter. However, you must be able to put your personal feelings aside, get on with your mission, and allow the reporters get on with theirs. When encountering the media, you should always ask yourself how you can use this nonlethal fire to help accomplish the mission and, most importantly, how it will assist the Soldier at the checkpoint or on patrol.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012