Analysis: Embedding reporters may help corporations open up

Embedded journalists helped the Pentagon tell its story during the war in Iraq; some are wondering if corporations should try a similar approach.

Embedded journalists helped the Pentagon tell its story during the war in Iraq; some are wondering if corporations should try a similar approach.

Live news feeds from the nation's boardrooms. Media tours of overseas manufacturing outposts. First-person accounts of planning meetings in government agencies. Now the stuff of fantasy for most reporters, these could become everyday strategies in the post-embed world of media relations - at least in the most extreme peacetime applications of the Pentagon's wartime communications policy. Yet despite the consensus among PR people that what one called "a new standard for transparency" was an overwhelming success, there is no discernible rush toward figuring out what would be the business world's equivalent of sticking a reporter on a tank. For even such a successful strategy highlights the very real risks of such access. "The more transparency, the better a reporter will understand who you are and what you do," says Larry Haas, director of public affairs for MS&L's Washington, DC office. "However, the more transparency, the more you are likely to show your warts, your problems, your internal struggles. I don't know that the embedding experience will move the ball toward transparency because I think there was enough publicity about the Pentagon's struggles. I think there's just as much reason to think that that will give corporations even greater pause to show themselves to the media." Two different animals A majority of PR practitioners interviewed shared Haas' view: that war reporting is very specific and, over the decades, has lent itself to a strategy like embedding, even before it had a name and before it accurately could even be called a strategy. Traveling with troops, rather than relying on pool reporting or press conferences, goes back to the work of the hallowed Ernie Pyle and countless other correspondents who chronicled the World Wars and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. War is war and business is business, and the communications strategies useful for each are very different. There are issues of competition and privacy - not to mention the fears of cautious shareholders, attorneys, and PR agencies - that distinguish the private sector from an open government. Still, if a concept as dramatic as embedding were ever to gain a footing in other disciplines, it would be hard to imagine a better time. Not only has it yielded spectacular PR successes for the US military in Iraq, but that victory came in an era when financial scandals have made corporate responsibility and transparency watchwords. Corporations are scrambling to think of new ways to convey an image of trustworthiness to a community of investors and a general public whose confidence has been diminished by widespread frauds. So it would appear that an effective way for the Enrons and HealthSouths of the world to create an image of honesty would be to remove some restraints from the press and let them see some of the inner workings. If embedding can humanize a well-armed force as it steamrolls a comparatively weak enemy, imagine what it could do for executives at companies known for paper shredders and vivid imaginations when it comes to the ledgers. Just a few weeks after the formal cessation of hostilities, PR people by and large say no, begging the question of just what will be the legacy of this crucial moment in the history of public relations - the flawless implementation of a strategy that not only achieved the desired effects, but also became a major story in and of itself. Those who have been working in media relations long enough know that, at base, there is nothing new about giving journalists more access than they expect or are entitled to. "Providing reporters total access to what goes on in a particular part of a company or an event to get them behind the scenes is something I think people will be looking at," says Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. "But that's not a new technique. It's just that a lot of companies haven't opened the kimono." Clark Judge, managing director of the White House Writers Group, a communications company, uses these techniques frequently. In a crisis situation he worked on more than a decade ago, his client, an agriculture company, was facing allegations of unfair labor practices. Judge's advice was to open up the fields and the workers' housing to the media. Some senior management objected, but they were overruled by the CEO. The results were clear and immediate. "The client went from being called pretty bad names regarding labor practices to being called one of the best agricultural employers in the country in a matter of weeks," he recalls. So it was with a great deal of confidence stemming from this and other experiences that Judge wrote an April 1 article for The Wall Street Journal, in which he opined, "The embedded reporters will continue to be a brilliant strategy for the Pentagon - one that should echo in the rules of corporate communications." The truth comes out The logic behind embedding is clear and powerful in its simplicity. "You're opening yourself up to things you can't control, and that becomes the mark of veracity. That's how you become the standard of truth," Judge says. "Intuitively, when you can't control where [reporters] go and what they look at and who they talk to, the question of lying becomes moot. The filter is gone. Where is there even room for lying? The client ends up, as the Pentagon did, spending time interpreting the facts and, in that way, it can get its message out." Leslie and Judge agree on the benefits of offering access and on the risks, which are significant; they disagree on whether it's worth the risk. "Things can be taken out of perspective," Leslie says. "Sometimes in the rush to get the picture on TV to beat the competition, you lose perspective. And that's true as much in covering business or politics or war." He concludes, "I think that's why there won't be a rush to embed reporters in companies as a result of the perceived success of the Pentagon." If embedding, or something like it, is unlikely to become a fashionable way of thinking of corporate communications, it could still have important ramifications for how PR people deal with the news media. "People recognize more and more that news organizations will demand real-time reporting, and that that's what's going to get ratings," Leslie says. "The extent to which business organizations are cooperative in providing that kind of access determines whether they're likely to get coverage." The Pentagon's media policy may also set in stone a standard for battlefield access. "I can't imagine going back," says Chris Kelley Cimko, SVP and head of the Image and International Affairs Practice in Edelman's Washington, DC office. "The barn door is open and the horse is out. It would be very hard not to do this in a full-on campaign." But, she adds, she doesn't see the policy as having far-reaching effects in other government agencies, except perhaps a trickle-down effect on the armed services. "It's like you're a trendsetter, but there's really nobody else to follow, so it doesn't really become a trend." All in all, the legacy of embedding may be seen as a reinforcement of long-developing trends in media relations rather than a revolution. Leslie compares it to what Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign did for the concept of the war room, a tool used for decades before but suddenly made sexy by George Stephanopoulos and James Carville. The figures associated with embedding, however, will be the journalists, those made household names - especially those who died. And, of course, Defense Department spokesperson Victoria Clarke. "It will crystallize what technology has brought us and has been bringing us for some time," says Leslie. "Someone like Torie Clarke will have history remember her as someone who made the most of that moment, acknowledged it, and did something different."

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