Americans may be getting back to work, but it certainly isn't
business as usual for the Department of Defense. And the new and
reorganized public affairs effort marks only the very beginning of the
changes ahead. Julia Hood reports
When the Department of Defense (DoD) hired Victoria "Torie" Clarke from
Hill & Knowlton, she assumed the top public affairs job with a call for
new ways of doing things.
"Our challenge is change," she said in April at nominations hearings
before the US Senate Committee on Armed Services. "Changing an
institution whose roots in our communities and our consciousness runs
deeper than perhaps any other: that demands an aggressive program of
outreach and education."
Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, reports to
secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. But Clarke never could have
imagined just how much would be demanded of her department, never mind
the extent to which the day-to-day routine would be altered.
The entire DoD, in fact, has a new mission: to work with the President
to develop a response to the terrorist attacks that hit New York,
Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania on September 11. It has become clear
that relationships with the media will have to accommodate new
priorities. And some of the reforms within the communications department
may be influenced by the events themselves.
Even before the terrorist attacks, the DoD had hired unnamed consultants
to help review its public affairs functions, though the department
declined to name any PR agencies involved. However, Lt. Col. Vic
Warzinski, military assistant in the office of public affairs, admits
that the DoD "may not have thought (about strategy) as much as we should
have." He says the DoD needs to be more focused on "messaging - the
whole idea of figuring out what we need to say and when."
Controlling the flow of information is paramount at the DoD right now,
but back in July 2001, transparency was the priority. For the first
time, reporters were allowed to watch the strategic missile defense
system tests from the Pentagon instead of from Roslyn, VA. Reinvigorated
by the President's clear commitment to the missile defense system, the
public affairs team devised a strategy to improve the flow of
information to the press. "We felt we would get a straight shot from the
press that covered it because they had access," says Rear Admiral Craig
From transparency to murkiness
But as plans are made for a possible military response to the September
11 attacks, transparency may not be the biggest priority. In fact, the
media is already concerned that information will be limited, and that
misinformation could spread.
An article in The Washington Post in September stated, "Many journalists
are growing concerned they will have less information and less access to
US troops than ever before ... even the use of deliberate disinformation
cannot be ruled out."
The Post also reported that Clarke has been meeting personally with
journalists and bureau chiefs to reassure them that the DoD remains
committed to supplying as much information as possible without
undermining military plans. And while the President himself has warned
that his administration will not talk about intelligence gathered, the
media simply cannot be shut out. The DoD, like any other government
office, relies on public favor.
"There's a very delicate balance that must be struck," explains former
Pentagon spokesman and White House assistant press secretary James
"There is a dichotomy for the Pentagon in that they must maintain public
confidence and political support for the actions they have been asked to
undertake, and that requires them to be forthcoming."
The rough road ahead
The challenge, according to Fetig, will be to develop a strategy that
will maintain the integrity of the military campaign while continuing to
reach out to opinion leaders and the public. "It's a two-way process.
Senior officials should be out among the people, speaking and
However, it's not always easy to bring out the brass and the press
together. "Generals by their nature are reticent," Fetig says. "When I
was at the Pentagon, we had editorial board quotas. You had to get a
certain number of four-star generals out to a certain number of
meetings. They kept a scorecard."
Along with the public initiative, the DoD had also planned to improve
its communications with Congress. To that end, Clarke has been talking
more regularly with press secretaries on the Hill, and is keen to
improve coordination with other government agencies. And knowing that
change begins with small steps, some of the department's stiff
nomenclature was recently abandoned: the Directorate for Defense
Information is now simply called the press office.
On a typical day in the past, there were 19 information officers working
out of the Pentagon, including civilian personnel and members of the
three main military branches - Army, Navy (including the Marine Corps),
and Air Force - and one staff member would always work a night shift.
But after September 11, the PR team was split into three groups of eight
to 10 offices working round the clock. And in addition to the DC staff,
there are thousands of public affairs personnel stationed in units and
military bases around the world.
So as the DoD has faced news crises, it has learned new lessons about
communication. The Gulf War, for example, introduced the Pentagon to the
24-hour news cycle, as well as to the importance of a news outlet (like
CNN) in shaping public opinion.
But now, the pundits are talking about a new kind of war - one that
might necessitate new PR thinking. The DoD's public affairs team is
already evaluating its response to the present crisis, and "there is a
feeling at least that we were very reactive, but not as proactive as we
need to be in tomorrow's and the next day's issues," Warzinski says. "If
that process is continuing, it's a real likelihood that the lessons we
learn now will be incorporated into how we structure things."
But the task of preparing the public for a new breed of war is a
challenge no one could have prepared for. "This will be different from
the Gulf War," Fetig says. "It won't be over in 100 hours. It may not be
over in 100 years."
DEPT. OF DEFENSE
Secretary of defense: Donald Rumsfeld
Assistant secretary of defense, public affairs: Victoria "Torie" Clark
Deputy assistant secretary of defense, public affairs: Rear Admiral
Military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense, public
affairs: Lt. Col. Vic Warzinski
Deputy director for press operations: Bryan Whitman
PR budget: not available
PR agencies: not disclosed