Handling a crisis is part of any PR pro's job. For Vic Beck, a captain in the US Navy reserves who is finishing a nearly year-long tour as head of media operations in Baghdad for the Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I), crises are a 24-7 reality.
A long-time tech specialist, Beck was VP for Wellesley, MA-based Peter Arnold Associates prior to going on active duty. Beck says media operations for MNF-I consist primarily of monitoring both US and Iraqi news, facilitating media requests for information and interviews, and advising military officials and spokespeople in Iraq on what to discuss publicly.
For his staff of about 85, of which perhaps 30 are civilian contractors and the rest military, the difficulty in getting information to media lies not just in the usual challenges of discovering what is happening, but also in determining what information can be released without jeopardizing operational security.
"If it's a suicide bomber in a market, the information that it happened [won't] affect security," says Beck. "But some basic facts are just very hard to assess. Who did it? How many were killed? Were women and children killed?"
The number of journalists in Baghdad varies as people rotate in and out, but all major outlets usually have someone present. "It's a grind and a half, as you can imagine," Beck notes. Many still take advantage of the "embed" program, in which journalists travel as part of military units.
Reflecting the downtick in fighting of late and a presidential race drawing intense interest, the number of "embeds" is only a few dozen at present, compared to as many as 200 six months ago. The news isn't bad everywhere in the country, nor is all media reporting on combat operations, explains Beck, but journalists do tend to want to cover fighting, bombings, and other conflicts.
The local Iraqi press, which often is not as trained in journalistic practices, is as important to Beck's team as Western media. Beck says he strives to reduce as much "misinformation" as possible.
"We're just looking for accurate reporting," he says, "especially for some of the outlets that are anti-coalition. We just tell them we want them to balance out their stories."
Beck works long hours with little time off. He looks forward to the end of his tour on April 24. Still, he says the work has been far more interesting than anything he's ever done, although private sector work prepared him.
"Having worked at five PR agencies and heading corporate communications at two publicly- traded companies [ATG and ePresence] gives me a different perspective," he says. "I'm not military all the time. In one strange way, I look at the military as a client. I've got 23 years of experience with it, so I know this client pretty well."
Eric Fife, a former strategic communications adviser to MNF-I, says he worked at its media center for about a month prior to Beck's arrival last year. Through smart appointments and effective management, Beck turned a disorganized operation into one that responded more efficiently to requests for information.
"Reporters used to [not] call us, because they called it a black hole - if they put in an inquiry for an answer, they rarely got one back," says Fife, who is now director of communications for the nonprofit Vets for Freedom. "But that changed entirely. They learned that they could call the press desk and get an answer [or] at least an approximation [of when] we'd have an answer."
Chief of media relations, Multi-National Force - Iraq
VP, Peter Arnold Associates
Director of corporate communications, ATG