War in Iraq reports force shift in media strategies

NEW YORK - Less than a week into the invasion of Iraq, glowing stories of early military successes gave way to bleak warnings that this war will not be quick, leading media strategists to reassess plans based on expectations of a repeat of the swift Gulf War.

The nation's biggest outlets, including the cable news networks, saturated their programming with war coverage made vivid by battlefield reports and explanations of military minutiae through an array of news gadgetry. All the while, appetite for war news remained healthy, in contrast to those for high-profile events like the Oscars and the NCAA basketball tournament, both of which suffered diminished audiences.

The war's effect on other stories was also pronounced. "We're seeing business journalists interested in stories, but unsure of whether they can cover them," said Michael Schiferl, director of media services at Edelman. "We're getting caveats that come with interest."

With the possibility of a long conflict looming, no one has a clear sense of when other stories will penetrate the coverage.

"My guess is that because of the cool technology and the investments the networks have made, they're going to carry on this way until viewership drops," said Barbara Kalunian, senior vice-president of Ketchum's communications and media strategy group.

Many PR people have come to similar conclusions, and are advising clients that the duck-and-cover strategy that worked for the first Gulf War just won't do this time around.

"How long can you tell your clients to hold off on rollouts, announcements and media tours?" asked Charlie Caudill, president of Caudill Media Management. "You have to go forward and focus on the press where you'll get attention."

Meanwhile, Norman Birnbach of Birnbach Communications has told clients to forget about morning shows. "It's a time when other issues are falling by the wayside," he said.

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