Lessons from McChrystal's self-destruction

Oh, how the mighty fall. Last week, it was General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO and US Forces in Afghanistan.

Oh, how the mighty fall. Last week, it was General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO and US Forces in Afghanistan.

A career struck down prematurely by a self-inflicted shot to the mouth – figuratively speaking, that is. Given the circumstances, most of us would have done exactly what President Obama did: Accept McChrystal's “letter of resignation.”

The question I keep asking myself is: Didn't somebody on General McChrystal's staff see this disaster coming and why didn't they stop it in its tracks?

This question is not meant as a knock on our outstanding men and women in uniform who earn the title of public affairs officer. After all, arrogance, brashness, and vulgarity are not exclusive traits of military officers. Spend enough time with executive leadership in corporate America and you quickly discover the C-suite is no place for alter boys and weak stomachs.

Prior to the now-infamous “McChrystal” issue of Rolling Stone, somebody on the general's public affairs team had to be swallowing bottles of Tums in anticipation of the story. So why the heartburn?

First consider the source for the story. According to “The Runaway General,” McChrystal has always been a loose cannon (sorry for the pun). The writer even states that McChrystal is “…sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price.” I guess so, since the price ended up being the general's head. I've represented dozens of McChrystals over my 29-year career, and I carefully weigh the upside and downside of access by a reporter to an unbridled stallion of a leader.

Second, who in their right mind agrees to unencumbered access by Rolling Stone? It's one thing to represent notable foul mouths like talk-jock Howard Stern and target Rolling Stone for an interview.

But the commander of all things Afghanistan? The man whose paycheck is signed by the commander-in-chief? Even if McChrystal was an officer and a gentleman, you have to consider the medium. Rolling Stone writes with an attitude where the f-bomb (sorry for the pun) spices up every other sentence and brazen controversy feeds the appetite of its readers.

McChrystal's self-destruction is a painful reminder for PR and public affairs people everywhere: Access and arrogance make for an explosive combination. Handle with care.

Doug Spong is president of Carmichael Lynch Spong. 

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