06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

PR Win for the Military. But What About the Victims?

Since last Friday, CNN has been airing and re-airing a story about how Marines are trained to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated areas. Back in my PR agency days, this kind of "hit" would have been cause for celebration, maybe even a spot bonus.

This PR coup comes in the wake of multiple news stories about civilian shootings in Afghanistan. About a week ago there was the release of a gruesome video, which showed the 2007 murder of a Reuters reporter who was shot by U.S. soldiers -- the cavalier and blood-thirsty audio even more chilling than the video.

There is also the nagging story about U.S. troops killing five women in Gardez, and the dispute over whether bullets were dug out of their bodies to get rid of the evidence. And there's the mounting civilian body count, anywhere between 8,000 and 30,000 direct and indirect deaths from U.S. led actions alone in Afghanistan.

Stepped Up PR Effort

As a responsible PR person, when you're getting hammered in the press you need to respond.

So when a glossy human-interest story on Marine safety training shows up on CNN, my Spidey sense tells me it's no accident. Would CNN intentionally go hunting for a feel-good, softball kind of story like that? Maybe. But unlikely.

It was almost certainly the result of a PR "pitch." Some skillful PR pro likely made a careful assessment of news outlets and reporters to see where the military could get the most traction and the greatest result. FOX News? Nah. It would be dismissed as boosterism. The networks? Nah. They only allot 13.8 seconds per story nowadays.

CNN? Hmmm... It hits the right demographic. Has the trappings of independence. Airs plenty of human interest stuff... Keeps the story narrowly focused on the training elements. Makes sure discussion of specific incidents is out of bounds. Shows some all-American looking kids. Avoids the hard news reporters that are jockeying for an anchor slot.

Good PR people have strong relationships with reporters and news producers, and my guess is that someone made a casual call to ask: "Hey, we really try to do the right thing. Would you be interested in tagging along with our guys and doing a story about... ?"

And bingo: a solid media hit that moves the debate.

Which Way Does it Move?

Don't get me wrong. Everyone has the right to representation, even PR representation. The problem with my chosen profession is that it's increasingly used for an almost magical purpose: changing the subject.

This kind of story does not move the story of civilian deaths forward. It moves the story sideways. Indeed, it sidesteps the elephant in the room: "If the military takes so many precautions to avoid civilian deaths, then why do they appear to be so bad at it?"

Then as if on cue, just as the top brass was probably thinking they were out of the woods for a while on the civilian deaths issue, there was another incident yesterday. A mere three days after the CNN piece on safety training aired, U.S. soldiers opened fire on a busload of civilians, killing four people.

And I'm not taking swipes at the soldiers in uniform here. These are legitimate question of training, policy and tactics. And for the sake of the soldiers in uniform, the military needs to come up with better answers, based on a thorough review of all of the above. You can't just rely on feel-good TV stories as a substitute for serious internal assessment.

Unfortunately, under the cover of effective PR they might never be forced into one.

They certainly won't do it voluntarily. They never investigate much of anything. The military has already said the case of the dead reporter is closed. The tape in question has been "lost." For years they've failed to investigate financial rip-offs by contractors like KBR. Pat Tillman? Who's he? The Guantanamo "suicides?" See the January issue of Harper's for the truth on that one.


Will anyone be held accountable? You mean like in the corrupt and blundering financial services "industry"? JPMorgan's CEO -- Jamie "Dimons-are-forever" -- continues to move the story sideways by focusing on homeowner's "sacred pledge" to repay. Rather than his own institution's sacred debt to taxpayers for his job and his non-bankrupt company.

Or like the leadership of the Catholic Church? They moved the story sideways today by saying that the Church is not to blame, it's the evil of homosexuality. Their coddling of these villains had nothing to do with it.

If the story of civilian deaths follows the established pattern of today's news, some mysterious force will push the real story off track and "the story of the story" will become the story (if it hasn't already). We will never know the actual details of anything, like who did what, to whom, and why (unless they slowly leak out despite the military's best efforts). We'll never know if it could have been prevented. No one will be held accountable. It will be overtaken by events. And PR will have won the news cycle by breaking the momentum of the narrative at a critical point.

The Other Army

Whether you know it or not, there are tens of thousands of us out there -- a group literally the size of an army -- who work this grind day in and day out. A large portion (no I won't go out on a limb and give you a number but I'd say its the vast majority) of the stories you read, hear and see are suffused with a PR-driven agenda. And it's in your best interest to tune your Spidey sense to it, because it's an integral part pretty much every story you're being told.

  • Was that story on soldiers' safety training an accident? No.
  • Was it purposefully timed? Yes.
  • Did it have an agenda? Yes.
  • Was that agenda all bad? No.
  • Does that part of the story need to be told? Sure.
  • Is that story a substitute for getting to the bottom of the real story of civilian deaths? Not in a million years.
  • Would interested parties at the Pentagon like you to see that story and forget about the civilian carnage? Absolutely.

That's the way PR works. There's no escaping it.

Maybe. Sometimes people wise up and do the right thing. An Icelandic investigative committee yesterday published a "Truth Report" that excoriated the former Prime Minister for his "extreme negligence" in that country's financial implosion. They actually named names and cataloged the crimes.

The current Prime Minister said: "This important report will enable us to look forward by understanding what took place here."

And how about in this country?

Not if PR can stop "understanding" in its tracks.