Thursday, May 19, 2016
General Problem: When the Division Commander Wants Branding
During Annual Training 2014, I had the delightful experience of using my civilian public relations skills as a soldier. The fuelers of the my unit set up a refueling site at the Pottsville Airport. I called the Pottsville Republican Herald and talked to a reporter who was interested in the military. I gave him dates and times that he could get pictures and videos of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters refueling at the airport.
He showed up with a photographer and video cameras. The commander of the refueling unit showed him all around the site. The result was a the front-page, above-the-fold story and photos you see above. I was elated. I bought a half dozen copies. The reporter had also posted videos on the newspaper's web site.
The day after the story was published I was in the State Public Affairs Office on Fort Indiantown Gap when Major General John Gronski walked in with a copy of the newspaper in his hand. I could see he was upset. The two majors in the office jumped from their chairs to talk to the General who wanted to know how this story was placed. He was upset that the headline said "National guard trains at airport."
He wanted the headline to say "28th Infantry Division trains at airport." He wanted "branding" for his unit.
The public affairs officers tried to explain that this was a very positive story on the front page and that we cannot control what a newspaper says in headlines.
The General left a few minutes later because there was nothing that could be done with a newspaper that was already printed.
Some leaders have a good sense of how communications works. Some don't. I have worked for civilian and military leaders who knew how public relations works, and for leaders who don't. Most military leaders I have known are suspicious of the media at best, so the General's reaction was not surprising.
Ten years ago on the best day of my working life I coordinated a story that was most of the front page and half of an inside page of the New York Times "Science Times" section. It was a literal million-dollar public relations score for the company I worked for. The story was completely positive. It was a great story by the leading science historian at the Times. Most of the staff was elated.
In the midst of the congratulations and high fives, the grumpy Quaker CFO of the company said, "They don't mention our name until the sixth paragraph."
With both the general and the grumpy Quaker, I knew there was nothing more to say.
Shortly after I retired from my civilian job, I took a course in fiction writing at Franklin and Marshall College. I wanted to learn the mechanics of writing fiction but I also took the course as a kind of mental mouthwash to clean public relations out of my mind and tell the whole truth when I write, at least from my perspective. Public relations, like lawyering, strongly relies on telling exactly the truth you want an audience or a jury to hear--not the whole truth.
I got paid to do that for 30 years. Now I can tell the truth as I see, and not get paid.