OPINION: News Analysis - MoD puts measures in place for comms task - With the lessons of 1999's Kosovo campaign fresh in their minds, the UK military communications team is stepping up a gear, says Gidon Freeman

The need for leaders to carry public opinion with them as they take

their countries to war is pragmatic, but it is also moral. Senior

political communicators say that informed public support confers moral

authority, without which any task is much more difficult.



In this context, the comms challenge facing the Government is especially

daunting as it prepares to dispatch hundreds, possibly thousands, of

British troops to support an expected US assault on Afghanistan, home of

the key suspect in the 11 September attacks, Osama bin Laden. In order

to meet this challenge, the MoD is instituting a raft of changes to the

mechanisms through which it conducts much of its media

communications.



In the US, this comms task falls to the State Department, the Department

of Defense and the White House, each of which stages a daily press

conference even in peace-time.



During the last military action in Kosovo, which unlike this operation

was NATO-led, most of the daily briefing fell to assistant secretary of

state for public affairs James Rubin. Now a partner at Brunswick, Rubin

points to the increased use of Secretary of State Colin Powell as

evidence the US administration is upping its comms effort.



'There will be less information than last time. A coalition of 19

democracies led to pressure for information. Much of this war will be

covert and American feeling is they just want to be told when the job's

done,' Rubin says.



In the UK, the work will be handled by the Ministry of Defence, in a

20-strong communications team headed by director-general of corporate

communications Martin Howard and chief press officer Simon Wren.



Preparations are advanced for a repeat of the daily press conference

routine trialled two years ago, even though it may yet be deemed

unnecessary.



MoD sources are reluctant to commit to such an upping of daily

activity.



In recent days the MoD has had reporting and technical staff from the

BBC, ITN and Sky round to 'recce' its temporary facilities on

Northumberland Avenue. Its main press conference room on Whitehall is

being refurbished.



The MoD has installed ISDN links to enable the media to file pictures

and copy from on-site rather than creating a delay by returning to their

offices. It has hired two staff with broadcast expertise - former radio

journalist Clare Cridland and ex-Newsnight floor manager Jonathan

Spencer - to make sure all runs smoothly.



The planning goes right down to minute details. For example, a new

carpet has been laid on previously bare floor - this improves the

acoustics, makes sound reels more usable and, senior information officer

Ben White says, 'increases the chances of getting the message out at the

right time to the right audience'.



Press conferences are just one aspect of the comms plan. The 24-hour

press office is increasing staff to deal with what one source expects to

be 'the greatest media interest ever'. Press officer and squadron leader

Elaine McLeod has been tasked with handling logistics for this boosted

press office function.



The Government considers the media useful not just as a tool for

influencing public opinion - thought it does rate it as such - but as a

method for getting messages to those whose loved ones are at war.



One source says: 'We have 200,000 members of the armed forces and must

reassure their loved ones as we explain things. Although those with

family in uniform get the odd letter, phone call or e-mail, the bulk of

the information they get will come from the news media.'



Bearing this in mind, the MoD is also making plans to increase the

frequency with which its website is updated. The Government expects to

be able to divert most information enquiries answerable with facts or

figures to the site (www.news.mod.uk), which can be updated around the

clock and at home by web editor David Stevens.



The range of tools are completed with an e-mail service to send defence

or otherwise interested reporters transcripts of comments made at press

conferences as well as all the available details from the operations

centre.



The need to bolster public opinion in a 'popular' war is not as acute as

when the Government must win the argument for the battle to take

place.



But media and public alike will still want to be kept aware of

developments as they affect British forces. The Government is ready to

meet that challenge.



THE EXPERT VIEW



Jamie Shea is NATO director of information and press. During the 1999

campaign to remove Serb forces from Kosovo, he served as the

organisation's chief spokesman in Brussels



'Public opinion will be important to support the use of force against

those behind the attacks in the US. Because of the situation, people are

subject to security checks that impact on their daily lives. The

communications challenge should be easier to meet because such impact

pushes the issue to the forefront of people's minds.



'The major communications problem is to maintain public support over the

long haul. There may be trade-offs between security and personal

freedom, which will require widespread public backing that the

Government cannot take for granted. Also, if the security is successful

and there are no more attacks for a certain amount of time, public

support may wane as people begin to question that the effort is

worthwhile.



'This military effort will be done more with special forces,

intelligence services and the police - much of which necessarily happens

in secret.



With Kosovo, we had troops in large numbers going off very visibly.

Constant vigilance in communications will be needed because while a

certain amount of the activity will be shown on CNN, a certain amount

will not.



'The relevant authorities will also face a communications battle to

convince people money should continue to be spent on this. Airlines are

talking about putting marshalls on all civilian aircraft - that has to

be paid for.



'There are lessons to be learned from our experience in Kosovo on

communicating in times of conflict. Advisers will need to put their

political leaders in the TV studios day in day out to constantly get the

message out.



'More important still is the need to convince people that terrorism is a

common problem - making the point repeatedly that people of 80

nationalities died in the World Trade Center. This is a crucial

communications task that cannot be shirked - no one country can play

"stop the world, I want to get off".



'The most important thing day-to-day is to stop leaks and stay in

control.



Every journalist wants a scoop about military plans, but the key for

Government is to be "open at the top but closed at the bottom" - to

communicate fully and frankly from sources with authority but to allow

nothing to leak out from lower ranks.



'If people handle the communications wrong they can jeopardise

operations. That is the flip side of good communications aiding

operations.'



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