EDITORIAL: The use of contrived soldiers' letters isn't a solid PR plan to combat anti-war sentiment in the US

USA Today reported that identical letters, signed by different soldiers within the same unit in Iraq, have appeared in at least 11 papers, and it has been revealed that a battalion commander was responsible for penning the missive. The letters describe positive strides being made in the aftermath of war, in spite of media coverage that has painted a comparatively bleak picture and declining public support for US efforts in that country.

USA Today reported that identical letters, signed by different soldiers within the same unit in Iraq, have appeared in at least 11 papers, and it has been revealed that a battalion commander was responsible for penning the missive. The letters describe positive strides being made in the aftermath of war, in spite of media coverage that has painted a comparatively bleak picture and declining public support for US efforts in that country.

Clearly, the military public affairs machine needs to take better control of the flow of information. Ironically, early on after the war was declared "over," it was the flow of negative comments from soldiers that caused consternation. That might have been easier to handle. It will take a lot more than a PR maneuver to repair the damage from this ploy, even though it seems a PR "civilian" instigated it. If there is an unheard conviction among the troops serving in Iraq that what they are doing makes sense, that they believe they are improving the lives of the beleaguered Iraqi people and making the world safe, then the unvarnished reporting of that belief is the government's most effective tool. But if these sentiments were cynically mass-produced in a calculated - and misguided - effort to sway public sentiment, enormous damage will have been done. Ironically, the news broke the same week as did reports of Army troops returning to Iraq after 15 days of leave. The biggest R&R program for troops since the Vietnam War provided an opportunity for soldiers to affirm their commitment to the job they are doing in Iraq, and express gratitude to the Army for giving them a much-needed break from the action. Like employees of any corporation, those who are actually serving in Iraq are powerful and unpredictable stakeholders. Soldiers can speak the pro-Iraqi campaign messages more eloquently than President Bush or anyone at the Pentagon. Yet, if there was a betrayal of trust in using the names of soldiers to hand out messages of good feeling from Iraq, the relationship between the military leadership and those who are fighting for the cause is compromised. Moreover, if this incident causes the public to lose its trust in the statements of soldiers, the government has lost its best chance of galvanizing public opinion. Bush's new PR campaign to change negative sentiment about the engagement in Iraq has been well documented recently, including in the pages of this magazine. Some elements, such as reaching out to regional news outlets, demonstrate a sensible effort to reach the public through alternative means. The implication that regional media will be so grateful for one-on-one interviews with the President that they will swallow anything he says will no doubt sour the impact. But identifying new channels for the message is not a bad idea. Likewise, the stumbles over the creation of the "Iraq Stabilization Group," in spite of - or perhaps because of - the bad feeling over US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld's lack of involvement in its creation, gave Bush an opportunity to assert that he is the one in charge. But contrived letters to the editor, however innocently conceived, don't lend much credibility to this PR campaign.

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