Though Steve Trimble began his career as a police reporter for dailies in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, his childhood as an "Air Force brat" meant he always wanted to write on the military.
Today he manages coverage of the US military and military news throughout the Western hemisphere for perhaps the best-known defense trade title, Jane's Defence Weekly. He spoke to PRWeek about what it's like to report on this oft-secret world.
PRWeek: How close have you been to covering a war as it's actually happening?
Steve Trimble: I did peacekeeping stuff in the Balkans in 2000, but not Iraq or Afghanistan.
PRWeek: Did that seem dangerous? Were you going out on patrols?
Trimble: We went out on patrols. There was some sensitivity to it, in Kosovo more so than Bosnia at the time, since it’d been so long since there’d been real hostility in Bosnia. But it was at a time when you didn’t hear anything about IEDs [improvised explosive devices] or insurgents. Everyone in the population seemed to be OK with the idea of the US and NATO there. Not so much welcoming, but they at least respected the fact that if the US went away, they’d go back to killing each other within a week. It’s quite different in Afghanistan and Iraq.
PRWeek: Does that experience help you understand the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Trimble: It’s so different, and I don’t think anything about it applies, other than the respect you have these for guys that do this job. There was this captain in my patrol in northeast Bosnia -- right on the border with Serbia, where most of the war occurred -- who was an armored cavalry officer. He was trained to go and blow stuff up; that was his calling and he loved it. But now his job was to be this community peace officer, basically, among the Serbs and Muslin.
PRWeek: Not an easy job.
Trimble: People would come up to him and say things like, ‘We’re trying to rebuild our house, which was destroyed during the war, but these Serbs keep driving by our house at 3 am blasting music, just to wake us up, and we’re getting sick of it.’ This is not something that he wants to do, to field complaints about bad neighbors, but the impressive thing was how dedicated he was to it. That professionalism carries over to Iraq. But I can kind of see how the situation on the ground there is completely different. I’m glad I’m not a part of it.
PRWeek: Writing about the military, do you find yourself thinking thoughts like: 'Why is there war? Why do companies produce these things that kill people?"
Trimble: You do think about it. I've toured a bomb factory in St. Charles, MO. I'm writing about the budget [and] technology, whether the company is on time, or is it screwing up the program. Then you look at the bomb and know it's going to cause someone a very bad day. But as a reporter, that's not something that really influences what you do.
PRWeek: How cooperative are defense companies' PR pros or military public affairs people?
Trimble: Obviously, it varies. It depends on the company, on the particular PR person you have to deal with. Some companies are far more proactive about that kind of thing than others. With a lot of the PR people that try to be responsive, you find in many cases they have to deal with major institutional reluctance.
PRWeek: Because of classified information?
Trimble: There’s always competitive secrecy in any industry, whether you’re Microsoft or Apple, or American Airlines or United. There are trade secrets. There's a general, pervasive sense of secrecy in the military, by the companies especially. When I talk to the military itself, it can be a bit different. But with companies, even if they're cleared to talk about information, that doesn't mean the customer wants people to know about it necessarily. So it has to worry about that not only within the company, but what the end customer will think about it talking to the press about a certain capability, technology, or problem it's having.
PRWeek: The program manager may feel that the less they tell the public, the less harm to military operations?
Trimble: There can be a whole lot of reasons. These companies are trying to market their products, not only in the US but overseas. They have that pressure to get out that message or story, but at the same time there are things they can’t say or have to be careful about saying because they don’t want to rub the customer the wrong way.
PRWeek: How are public affairs people in the military? Does their responsiveness also vary?
Trimble: Yeah, it definitely varies. I’ve seen some very dedicated, well organized, and motivated people who are obviously trying to give their spin on things, but that’s their job and you understand that. But you also see a culture again of ‘let’s not discuss things with the press if we don’t have to.’ They are sometimes not only very cautious but downright hostile. You get that sense a lot. On the program side it’s a little easier because the guys that run these billion-dollar programs know they need some marketing support in order to keep funding alive. That has to be balanced against obvious concern about disclosure and operations. It’s always a balance. Sometimes the line shifts, so something they couldn’t talk about a year ago is now something they can or want to talk about. You may not know why. Then after they open up, sometimes they decide to go back to being less responsive. It’s always kind of moving target.
PRWeek: Is the embedded media program a sign that the military is opening up?
Trimble: With the embedded media strategy, they found a way to do communications with the media in a way that they feel comfortable. Not sure the media was as comfortable with the set- up, but if you're not embedded and you're sitting in a hotel 1,000 miles behind the frontlines, that is also not a good situation.
PRWeek: Because reporters miss the larger picture if they only work with one unit?
Trimble: Right, but if you’re not embedded and you’re sitting in a hotel 1000 miles behind the frontlines, that’s also not a good situation. So it’s kind of a no-win. If you’re on your own and you’re just in a jeep running around in the desert, there’s only so much new, useful information you can get. You don't have any idea of the strategic picture. You might see a couple of units moving around, but you don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re not going to tell you -- if they don’t shoot you on sight. And you run the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
PRWeek: Maybe combining reports from the field can give you the full picture?
Trimble: You'd like to think so. It's not easy.
Name: Steve Trimble
Outlet: Jane's Defence Weekly
Title: Americas bureau chief
Preferred contact method: Stephen.Trimble@janes.com
Web site: www.janes.com