When To Shut Up
When To Take AIM
When To Quit Being So Passive
I recently spent a day with public affairs officers at a Defense Dept. agency that needed help because a spokesperson had said too much in answer to a press query. No one wanted to say why it was too much. It just was, and that was good enough for me. After all, I was dealing with professional communicators, and my long experience with the Pentagon (which I covered for Business Week and other periodicals) told me that they were an honest bunch who respond to the media accurately and comprehensively -- up to a point.
Preparing for the class, I recalled some wise words from Bill Caldwell, a former Marine and senior Defense Dept. spokesman: “We always tell the truth, and we never volunteer anything.” Think about that. Never lie. Never volunteer. The volunteering prohibition, of course, doesn’t apply to information that reflects well on the agency. A government PAO’s first loyalty is clear, and it’s up to reporters to ferret out the rest of the story.
The PAOs I was working with got that, and we went on to discuss taking AIM (audience, intent, message), image-conscious clarity of language (words like “warfighters” instead of “troops”), and “bridging.” On that last one, I sat back and let the PAOs share stories about what works, such as:
Reporter: “You’ve got this huge cost overrun on a contract for (fill in the blank). How can we be sure that other contracts from that company aren’t just as bad? How much more money is being wasted?”
PAO: “That company has stayed on cost with X number of contracts, which helps keep the warfighter safe/fed/clothed/equipped (take your pick, depending on your agency)…”
We also discussed helping reporters, particularly young ones, get a firm grip on a complicated story -- always with the agency’s best interests in mind. For example, PAOs take press queries to “subject matter experts” and come back to the reporter with an answer. But, I suggested, instead of just passing on information, why not frame the response in a way that might “help” the scribbler find the “lede,” that crucial first paragraph?
Manipulative? Maybe, but quite effective. Meanwhile, there’s nearly always balance in the delicate relationship between press and spokespersons on potentially controversial stories. Behind the reporter at any respectable publication are editors who cast a skeptical eye on “raw copy,” alert for unchecked “spin.”
I’ve saved the best for last.
I put the PAOs through some scenarios supplied by the agency and asked them for responses to the difficult questions that an aggressive journalist would pose. The spokesperson for the group dealing with an incident involving environmental damage got the details right and displayed laudable candor (“There wasn’t just a single point of failure.”), but then uttered what may be the most notorious passive verb construction in the history of political communication: “Mistakes were made.”
You gotta love a well-timed teaching point.
Those were President Reagan’s exact words when he finally yielded to Democrats and the media who were clamoring for an explanation of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal in the 1980s. Quoth the Gipper: “Mistakes were made.”
“See how the passive construction sounds like a verbal shrug, a ‘stuff happens’ sort of a semi-admission of guilt?” I asked them. “See how the actor, the one or ones who made the mistakes, isn't even in the so-called admission?”
Contrast that with a much more refreshing, clear-the-air, “We made mistakes,” leaving the impression that you’ll try hard to keep them from happening again. Anything less, and you may risk continued media speculation.
That’s enough for now. Enjoy the spring weather.