News that US military in Afghanistan terminated a $1.5 million contract with Washington-based strategic communications firm The Rendon Group (TRG) threw agencies that work the Beltway circuit back into a negative limelight following last month's coal association-Bonner & Associates letter-writing fiasco.
The Defense Department's own publication, Stars & Stripes, broke a story where it claimed TRG had been producing profiles of journalists, assessing whether their work was “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” The publication writes that “at least two journalists' applications for embeds” had been rejected based in part on information compiled by TRG.
While the analysis of media coverage for tone – a common tool for corporations and organizations as well – was not denied by the agency or the military, both have condemned the suggestion that reporters were rejected for assignments to Afghanistan based on their individual coverage.
“We see what reporters want, try to accommodate them, and see what they publish – good and bad,” Wayne Shanks, chief of public affairs for International Security Assistance Forces, Afghanistan, told the Navy Times. “The information is not used to determine whether an embed will be granted.”
US military officials could not be reached for additional comment.
In a statement on its Web site, TRG said it analyzed themes of importance to US interests, such as stability and security, but that it “does not make recommendations as to whom the military should or should not interview.”
But the case reveals some of the unique circumstances under which PR professionals working in the government and military space must operate.
“There's some fundamental skepticism about work with government agencies” says Tom Davis, VP at Susan Davis International. He says this is because many in the public believe the “government doesn't need to have a public affairs strategy; it should essentially be able to say what it's doing.”
That skepticism is fueled by a string of negative consultant-government relationships, adds Don Goldberg, a partner with Qorvis.
“The reaction to this particular example is more a factor that there's been a lot of controversy over the government's use of contractors like Blackwater, KBR, and DynCorp, than antipathy to the war in Afghanistan,” he says.
Michael Bilello, president and founder of Centurion Strategies, and the former public affairs officer for the Marine Corps during ground operations in Iraq in 2003, escorted journalists from Kuwait into Iraq. He notes a unique benefit to hiring outsider contractors.
Outside consultants function as “force multipliers,” people that make military members available to tend to other duties.
“Every person that we can free from a desk job and fill those spots with private contractors, that's a force multiplier,” says Bilello.
Though he doesn't believe it is the case, Bilello says if the US military was using the information “in a discriminatory way, that's wrong.”
He counters that most of the work that PR firms do for the military has been “successful,” but that it isn't without its distinct characteristics.
“The ground rules are far and vastly different from private sector and civilian PR,” he says. For firms working with government entities, he suggests adhering to the budget, setting realistic timelines, and sharing information so everyone is on the same page about the “end state.”
At the same time, he notes that security concerns curb what can be shared and with whom.
“The culture of the military is going to impact how the message is delivered,” he adds Bilello. “They're not going to be as voluntary with information.”