The British Army is used to engaging in armed combat in far-flung corners of the globe but it is facing an increasingly tough battle to portray itself in a positive light in the media.
Photographs showing British soldiers abusing Iraqis dominated the media last week, damaging the Army’s reputation both at home and overseas. Ex-service personnel-turned-PROs describe the scandal as ‘verging on catastrophic’ for the Army’s credibility.
When the issue of alleged abuse in Iraq surfaced last year, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan lost his job after publishing images that turned out to be fake. But last week, photographs showing Iraqis trussed up in cargo nets, suspended from a forklift truck and in various degrading sexual poses emerged that were only too real.
Citigate Dewe Rogerson executive director Simon Rigby, a former serviceman, says: ‘These pictures will be in the minds of the public for a long time. [They will have triggered] not just a blip but a fundamental shift in opinion.’
How then does the Army defend itself in media terms? The Ministry of Defence has a comms department of more than 40, with a further 38 PROs in the regions, while the Territorial Army has a 60-strong media operations group. It also retains PR agencies Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster, which advises on national recruitment, and Golley Slater, which undertakes regional PR to woo new recruits.
And while Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson strongly condemned such behaviour, he pointed out that just a ‘small number’ of the servicemen and women who have served in Iraq are alleged to have been involved in incidents such as those that have attracted negative press.
Rigby says: ‘Jackson was absolutely right when he made a statement in the middle of a court martial, which shows how serious the Army is taking the issue.’
Cubitt Consulting managing partner Simon Brocklebank-Fowler argues that the British Army is actually open and straight-talking in contrast to the US army, which has come under fire for barring the media from showing images of the coffins of its dead soldiers returning from the Middle East.
Brocklebank-Fowler, a former diplomat, says: ‘The Army has handled the issue very well, and much better than the way the US has handled the media. It responded swiftly and openly, and there has been a response from the most senior level in the country [Tony Blair].’
However, last week’s headlines are just the latest bad press for the Army. Other ongoing sagas include the investigation into the deaths of junior soldiers at Deepcut Barracks, and the recent case of student Sally Geeson, who was murdered by a soldier known by the Army to have had a history of violence (see box). Restructuring, and the axing of Scottish regiments such as Black Watch, has also caused controversy.
The Army admits negative press affects its ability to lure recruits. Colonel Alastair Loudon, who is responsible for ethnic minority recruitment, says: ‘The situation in Iraq and the court martial make it more difficult to recruit across the board and have the potential to damage our reputation in the long term.’
Freelance defence journalist Francis Tusa agrees: ‘There will be parents who will stop their children joining the Army as a result of the bad press that the Army has got, particularly after Deepcut.’
The Army, as part of its drive to recruit more ethnic minorities to its ranks, is reviewing the account of Focus Consultancy (PRWeek, 14 January), an agency hired six years ago. Recent headlines will have done little to help convince ethnic minorities of the merits of an Army career.
Brocklebank-Fowler says: ‘The Army has the same PR challenge as any elite profession. It relates to the broader disengagement of ethnic minorities from anything that represents the establishment.’
Loudon argues that once sections of a particular ethnic group start to join the Army, their children tend to follow, so it is a question of getting the ball rolling.
Focus executive operations manager Georgina Brown says: ‘We have spent six years building relationships with [ethnic] community leaders. The Asian community, for example, looks to its leaders for advice so it is about getting them to talk positively about the Army.’
But despite the work of agencies such as Focus, some PROs believe the Army will never have an easy ride in the media.
Icon Public Relations senior partner Bill Hurst, a former platoon commander in the Gurkha Regiment, sums up the difficulty of managing the Army’s PR: ‘It is only a matter of time before a nutty-corporal or a randy-major story comes along.
Investing more in communications is not necessarily the answer. The more the Army uses PR, the more it exposes its daily activities and can be more easily shot down.’
‘Nutty corporal’ stories, though, do not cause reputational damage on a scale of last week’s headlines. As further allegations of abuse against Iraqis continue to surface, and whatever the outcome of the court martial, the challenge facing the Army to improve its image looks an uphill struggle, even for its battle-hardened PROs.