How David Petraeus Mastered the Media

11/19/2012 @ 12:03AM |2,479 views

How David Petraeus Mastered the Media

By Willy Stern

The evening before he was sworn in as CIA chief, I emailed David Petraeus seeking help with a story. The message he sent back is privileged. But I can share that he banged out a 2-page email of approximately 40 sentences. I learned how his last run went, where his aches and pains were, and what spy novel he’d just finished. I also got some meaty on-the-record quotes. That’s the work of a master-disgraced today, to be sure-but a master of the craft of media cultivation.

Wonder why Petraeus got a lot of good ink before his inexplicable fall from grace? Wonder no more. In the world of journalism, I’m a relative nobody so how, one wonders, must Petraeus have treated scribes from the NY Times andWashington Post? Let’s not forget that Petraeus, like all truly sophisticated modern military leaders, never missed an opportunity to make a friend in the media.

Of course, Petraeus stupidly went overboard in “cultivating” one such writer and it cost him his reputation and job. Nonetheless, as questions whirl as to why Petraeus had an affair, and whether the timing of the affair’s announcement was politically motivated, it’s instructive to use this sad episode as a springboard to think soberly about this complex relationship betwixt commander and journalist.

As the mainstream media wolves gather around the carcass of the indomitable David Petraeus-still indisputably one of the five greatest generals of the last 100 years-I recall another incident some five years back.

It was around 10 a.m. on Sunday, a time when my out-of-town brother David often calls. The phone rang.

“Hey, Willy, it’s David.”

“Yo’ man, what’s up?”

“My public affairs officer said you had questions for me. Let’s do it.”

Heart racing, I feel a fool. “Hello General Petraeus,” I stammer. “Thanks for getting back to me.” I’d written a profile of then 4-star general for a national running magazine, and had embedded in Iraq in 2007 to research the story. My editor, an insecure and controlling sort of bloke, had a query in almost every line. Now back stateside, I had sheepishly called Petraeus’ PAO, hoping he might be able to get one or two of these inane questions answered.

Instead, it is the general himself on the line. “Willy, I understand we’ve got 26 questions to wade through. Might as well get started.”

More than 90 minutes later, we’re done. That was the work of a media maestro.

Every first-rate commander knows how to cultivate the media, and use the press to his (or her) advantage. Sadly, such commanders are hard to find today.

There are notable exceptions but most commanders today are scared witless of the media. Men and women who have a chest full of medals for bravery and valor in combat are the first to hide under their desks when a journalist comes knocking. As such, we are losing the media war. Al Queda is very sophisticated at telling their story. The American military is not.

Twenty specific tools follow for dancing with the media elephant (without getting squished, a la General Stanley McChrystal):

1. If you, the commander, are relying solely on your PAO, you’ve missed the boat. Most of the best commanders develop independent relationships with the media. At its core, the commander-journalist mating dance is all about the relationship. There is no way to develop this relationship effectively through a third party like a PAO. You didn’t woo your spouse through a third party. It doesn’t work.

2. The best commanders often ignore their PAOs. Look at the commanders who get oodles of positive press. It’s a safe bet that they’ve worked hard at it. They cultivate journalists. They give out their private email. They communicate. They share of themselves, their families, and their lives. They invite media to the private dinners and to the off-the-record briefings. Their PAOs may have no idea.

3. Find trustworthy writers and nurture those relationships. Keep a stable of reliable journalists at the ready. If a commander-yes, I’m talking not just about generals but the lieutenant colonels too-is not already doing so, that officer is not helping his own career, or unit, or mission, a bit.

4. Get off your arse and start cultivating. Make a friend in the media. Cull carefully. Find someone you can trust, someone smart. Then, when the shinola hits the fan, you’ve got help. Or when you have a mission to sell, you’ve got someone to call. A further step: Senior leadership ought push budding junior officers into public events. Every AMVET, Rotary Club and American Legion is looking for military officers to speak at their meetings. Getting junior officers out to public speaking events will allow them to interact in a benign environment, a big first step on learning public relations skills.

5. Go to lunch. One easy methodology for cultivating: Schedule-or ask your PAO to schedule-12 lunches a year (one a month is not a burden) with a local journalist. Or more often. Do the meeting 100% off-the-record. Do not invite your PAO. One-on-one is what works. Or drinks. Or go for a run together. Or dinner. It’s a blind date with a big potential payoff. Meet a lot of scribes. Most are probably second-rate. You are looking for one or two trustworthy individuals with whom you bond.

An example: I think of Vice Admiral Robert Harward, the tough-as-nails Navy SEAL who today serves at vice commander of U.S. Central Command. He invited me in late 2009 to join him (and some military colleagues) at 0500 for a frosty climb up a jagged mountain named Gharib Gahr on the outskirts of Kabul. The super-fit Harward kicked my butt going up but graciously made me-a weak-kneed ink-stained wretch in the midst of an embed-feel welcome on this social outing.

6. Find out if your PAO is competent. Many PAOs are well meaning but just push paper and send out emails nobody in the media reads. Your PAO should have a handful of first-rate media on call. If not, find a new PAO. Or tell that PAO to get his lazy arse off the base and into local newsrooms. Ideally, every competent PAO should have several friends in the local media-in print, radio, TV, the blogosphere, and at least one in the national media. Most PAOs don’t know the real media players. But every commander could and should.

7. Metrics should no longer drive behavior. Every PAO has at some point been instructed by a lousy commander, “I want four stories per week sent to the base paper and hometown news-release system.” This promotes activity, not results.

8. Seek intellectual honesty. I once asked Brigadier General Martins, the head prosecutor at Gitmo today, for advice on getting good media. He’s a smart feller’-valedictorian at West Point, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law-with a singularly agile mind. Martins is secure in his own intellect. Says Martins, “Only thing I’ve done, I believe, is try to ‘do the right as I see the right’ and then honestly relate it to people who strike me as having, themselves, intellectual honesty.” That is key. Find the few writers who are intellectually honest. And bring them into your inner circle. Or as Polonius advised, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

9. You set the tone, not the intelligence officer. If a commander doesn’t have a pre-existing quality relationship with a journalist, then the PAO’s options are limited. To wit: The journalist wants to go to the briefing. The intelligence officer says quietly to the commander, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, sir.” Commander plays it safe. Journalist gets shut out. That ain’t likely the commander who’s going to be getting good ink.

Not so with Martins. I’ve written any number of stories about Martins-from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Washington DC. I’ve sat in on all sorts of briefings with him. I’ve been to so-called secret prisons in Afghan about which other mainstream media scribes had written breathless stories without (now here’s a surprise) having actually visited the facilities or knowing a darn thing about them. The general trusted me. That’s how the game is played. To be sure, not everything I’ve written about Martins has been flattering but I’ve never burned him on fundamental issues of operational security or fairness. Sadly, many (most?) PAOs are simply not sophisticated enough to play this game, or to make rational and intelligent judgments on a journalist’s intellectual honesty.

10. General and flag officers must empower subordinate officers so those individuals will feel like they can engage the media without getting their hands slapped. Sometimes fear of the media is not the issue; it’s fear of a nasty reaction when word of a media engagement goes up the chain of command.

11. Do your homework. Evaluate both the media organization and the journalist. Has that newspaper or TV station been intellectually honest in reporting on the military? If so, move to the more pressing point: Take your measure of the men or women with the reporter’s notebook. Are they worthy? You have the skills to judge; quality officers make gritty assessments of the soldiers under their command every day.

12. Start now. When I give public lectures to commanders on this issue, it’s right about now that someone interrupts, “Yeah, Willy, but I ain’t Gen. Martins. Officers like that are at a whole different level. What does this have to do with me, the anonymous major?” True, but Martins and other media-savvy commanders were out cultivating media people before they were generals. So should every smart officer. There’s no better time to make good contacts in the media than now. More than likely, as that major get promoted up the ranks, so will his journalist pals. Today’s best local reporters will be at CNN or theChicago Tribune in 5-10 years. Grab the smart ones now, before everybody with a microphone wants a piece of ’em. I’ve found that the younger generation of officers coming up through the ranks is generally more receptive to media engagement that the old guard.

13. Only a fool uses the PAO as the “break-in-case-of-emergency” guy. There’s simply no way that a PAO can “fix” a commander’s relationship with the media, especially during times of crisis, conflict or high pressure. It’s already too late.

A quick diversion: I once asked Petraeus for advice on dealing with the media. In several emails to me when he was still at the helm of the CIA, he shared numerous tidbits of advice. But stop and think about that a second. The director of the CIA was emailing back and forth with me, a lowly print scribe, with advice on talking to the media. Really? Why? He was engaging. He was cultivating. These next five items come from what I term “The Petraeus School of Media Relations:”

14. You can’t win the media battle if you don’t play.

15. You must play. It’s not your Army; it’s America’s Army. (Ditto for the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy.)

16. Bad news is bad news, but not as bad if you address it.

17. Don’t try to put lipstick on a pig. Tell the truth.

18. No email is private. (Sadly, ironic, isn’t it, that it was Petraeus’ mistress who apparently forgot this key rule.)

19. Don’t forget who is in the back of your humvee.

20. Remember, the journalist is not your friend. You may treat each other like friends, but ultimately he has a job to do. As do you. You may like your lieutenant just fine, but if he screws up, you will write him up. Same for us. Don’t confuse a good relationship with a true friendship.

Petraeus might have added a 21st rule: Don’t hop in bed with your biographer.

Why ought commanders engage the media? Media avoidance is understandable. Talking with a reporter is rife with risk. Commanders like control. With the media, there’s no control. But media avoidance isn’t a good strategy for the effective commander. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, explains that, “media engagement is about leadership at the senior level. But it’s largely a no-reward strategy. This engagement comes with some personal professional risk (it’s not like they are getting shot at) but the upside is strategic and long-term benefit to the military and our nation. That is why it’s critical that when a commander gets a star, that commander learns how to deal with the media, and gets out in front of the media. It’s too big a responsibility to step away from.”

There’s no fundamental difference in leading troops where you want them to go, and influencing the media to your advantage. If a commander doesn’t like, engage and spend time with the media, that commander cannot possibly use the media to advantage, be an effective communicator, or, by extension, an effective commander.

Most military personnel’s preconceived and pejorative notions of the media are real and well founded. I look back to what I’ve heard journalists called over the years on embeds and on bases here and overseas. Among the terms: Arrogant, narcissistic, biased, self-centered, untrustworthy, left wing scumbags, out to make a name for themselves, inaccurate, sleazy. And so on. That’s on a good day.

I won’t argue. There’s a lot of that out there.

Judge Robert Bork tells the story-others tell it too-perhaps apocryphal, about the invasion of Grenada. A reporter complained to a high officer that in World War II, unlike today, the press had been allowed to go to the front lines unescorted. The officer replied, “In World War II you were on our side.”

Much has changed since WW II. Today, many in the American press are not on the side of the military.

But the solution isn’t press avoidance. If every American commander avoided a hard battle because it was difficult, because it had some inherent risk, what kind of fighting force would we have?

Thucydides said: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them-glory and danger alike-and yet withstanding, go out and meet it.” Indeed, commanders need to think about going out and meeting the press, with the potential for glory and danger alike.

The savvy commander still isn’t convinced. That commander thinks media engagement sounds good but advocating for such a strategy is naïve. The thinking goes like this, “Don’t you realize that if I mess up with the media-the one area of my career I really cannot control-then my career goes down the drain? Look at McChrystal and Rolling Stone. If an extraordinary 4-star can go down for one magazine story, how about me?”

Indeed. The media can screw you. Royally. But only if you let it.

General George Washington said, “It’s better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” And I believe if we are being honest here, most excuses offered by officers today for press avoidance are bad.

How does one avoid getting “McChrystaled”? McChrystal-a magnificent warrior by all accounts-did himself in; he made three rookie mistakes:

1.He didn’t do his homework. He trusted the wrong scribe. Rolling Stone? What was he thinking? The magazine has a clear left-wing bias. Know whom you letting into the back of your humvee. The journalist in question should have been avoided. Instead, McChrystal should have gone with a writer from the op-ed page of the WSJ, or yes, The Weekly Standard-media with a sophisticated and intellectual knowledge of military matters and a bent towards supporting the troops, though not reflexively.

2.McChrystal’s aides let him down. At least one aide talked far too openly.

3.Gen. McChrystal forgot the mike was on. He made intemperate remarks about the boss, a classic no-no. Remember: Don’t ever say anything that you don’t want to read in the NY Times tomorrow.

Quick trivia: Guess who said this of the current deadly conflict between radical Islam and the western world: “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims.” Not Petraeus. It was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Queda.

Donald Rumsfield understood that we were losing the media war: “Consider that the violent extremists have established media relations committees-these are terrorists and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words. They’ve proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.” The former Secretary of Defense continues in a brilliant talk before the Council of Foreign Relations: “For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a five and dime store in an eBay world. Today we’re engaged in the first war in history-unconventional and irregular as it may be-in an era of e-mails, blogs, cell phones, Blackberrys, Instant Messaging, digital cameras, a global Internet with no inhibitions, cell phones, hand-held video-cameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television. There’s never been a war fought in this environment before.”

Even if the Obama crowd doesn’t admit it, we’re at war with radical Islam. The media is an important battlefield in that war. The enemy is engaging. Many of our best commanders are not. Result: We lose.

Much is at stake for general officers. “Commanders at that level have a fundamental responsibility to tell the story of their command and their mission to our citizenry and our lawmakers,” says Barno, “almost all of whom learn of these things only through the news today, and very few of whom have any direct contact with soldiers.”

Of course, bad commanders are a big part of the problem. Far too commanders simply tell their PAOs to “make me look good in the local paper and keep the media out of my office.”

Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu famously said that, “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” The media war is one conflict that can be won-and more to the point-lost, without fighting.

I’ve been hard on the PAO community, perhaps unfairly. Many PAOs are truly fine people and great warriors. To list a few of these extraordinary public servants: Lieutenant Commander John Gay, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Inglin, today Professor of Military Science at the University of San Francisco. Sergeant First Class Pete Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade. Staff Sergeant Barbara Ospina, 5th Special Forces Group. And many other first-rate PAOs I’ve been privileged to know.

And a final prediction: The extraordinary David Petreaus will eventually rise from the ashes and once again serve his country nobly and well.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s