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
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
MoD sources are reluctant to commit to such an upping of daily
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
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
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
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
'This military effort will be done more with special forces,
intelligence services and the police - much of which necessarily happens
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
'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
'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
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