Campaign Iraq war: fourth anniversary
PR team In-house – MOD, FCO, DFID
Strategy and plan
Tuesday 20 March was the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, given continuing world-wide protests and the deaths of so many Iraqis – as well as US and British soldiers – the majority of last week’s media coverage was negative in tone, as shown by Echo Research’s look at the tone of articles in British print and online titles.
But the communications offices of Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID) did have a plan in place.
Communications in Iraq is, of course, never simple. As DFID head of news Vickie Sheriff points out: ‘There are lots of frustrations – security and transport for example can be problems, particularly with so many journalists with complex and packed programmes.’
Ahead of the fourth anniversary the three government departments worked together ‘more than ever before’, according to MOD director of news James Clark.
‘We knew the interest from the media would be so much higher on this anniversary than on previous anniversaries,’ says Clark, himself a former Sunday Times defence correspondent.
Their campaign particularly targeted the broadcast media. Clark says: ‘We did not take advantage of the date to drum up media interest, but we knew the interest would be there and that broadcasters would want to broadcast from Iraq live all week.’
Planning began at the end of last year, when the MOD, FCO and DFID met with Sky News, the BBC, ITN and print journalists to ask them what they were hoping to cover during the fourth anniversary.
On the ground: a TV
Strategically, the MOD’s key goal was to highlight ‘the reality, as opposed to the perception’.
‘Some of the journalists who came out over the fourth anniversary had never been to Iraq before. They had strong preconceptions but they found something different when they got there – they expected very little progress, they expected low morale among the soldiers, but that was not the case,’ says Clark.
Each department also provided spokesmen, both at home and in Iraq.
The MOD put around 30 ‘ordinary soldiers’ up for interview. Clark says they were able to ‘give journalists lots of colour and personal experience’ and show that ‘while Iraq is dangerous, it is also rewarding, and the soldiers feel they are getting things done’. Major General Jonathan Shaw, the British commander in southern Iraq, was also provided for media comment.
FCO director of communication Lucian Hudson said the priority for his department was to ensure ‘the facts and context have been understood’.
‘It is a complex, difficult situation with some big challenges, but there is also some good to report,’ he says.
The FCO was also keen to ensure the media ‘reflected the various different aspects’ of the situation and ‘looked forward as well as backward,’ making clear the ‘tough choices we face’.
‘Iraq is not simply a military issue and is not a single story. Iraq’s relationships with Iran, Syria and the Middle East peace process need to be considered too. We are keen to impress the need to see Iraq in a broader context.’
Similarly, the FCO pointed out that the situation is not uniform across the country. It made a fact sheet available on its website and provided spokesmen including foreign secretary Margaret Beckett.
Finally there was the DFID. Sheriff says: ‘As always, we try to put across what is happening in terms of development, although it can be difficult to show, given that so much of the work concerns simple things we take for granted, from accounting to running an office. Most journalists are interested in the military story – so we are trying to provide a more rounded picture.’
DFID’s in-house team in London, as well as its full-time press officer working in Basra, liaised with both Iraqi and UK press, attempting to raise awareness of the development schemes such as a new water engineering training centre devised so that the Iraqis can manage their water supply. DFID also provided spokesmen from Iraqi business and the Iraq administration.
The MOD, DFID and the FCO all praised Sky News and the BBC’s coverage in particular for being ‘balanced’, although the print coverage was particularly negative.
The disparity between the BBC and some press journalists’ opinions may be partly explained by the fact that the MOD, DFID and FCO’s campaign particularly targeted broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky News.
While some journalists – notably BBC world news editor Jon Williams – were extremely pleased with the assistance given by the MOD and other departments, many others do have ongoing complaints.
For example, neither The Times diplomatic editor Richard Beeston or The Observer foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont were actually aware that the MOD, FCO or DFID were involved in a specific communications campaign around the anniversary. ‘I haven’t heard a sausage from any of them,’ says Beaumont.
And both journalists said they felt press trips with the British army were very different to those they had been on with American troops: ‘I’ve been on one press trip with the Brits’, says Beaumont. ‘It was a total waste of time for me and I disembedded after 24 hours and went back to being unilateral. In Iraq the Brits tend to be very controlled and worried about people getting hurt,’ he adds.
Instead, he says, the US forces ‘pretty much allow you to go on any operation and take the same risks as the people you are with’. He adds: ‘Thank God for the first amendment – US soldiers feel empowered to speak openly about their own feelings and experiences in a way that British soldiers don’t.’
Beeston agrees: ‘I have also found a marked contrast between how the Americans and the British deal with journalists. There seems to be an ideological belief within the US military that journalists have a right to know what is going on, whereas the British view journalists with suspicion.’
He adds: ‘It feels like the American troops still have belief in the mission, whereas with the Brits it feels like we gave up on the mission a long time ago.’
‘It’s not a question of whether coverage was positive or negative’, says the MOD’s Clark.‘It is a question of whether it was fair and accurate. Almost all of the broadcast coverage was. Broadcasters tend to show what they see, whereas newspapers cover what they want to write about,’ he says.
He concludes: ‘We do have a limited capacity to take people out there, and those who have not spent the money to have a day-by-day presence in Iraq have to wait their turn.’
The results, he says, were ‘a success’.
Analysis conducted by Echo Research
Jon Williams BBC world news editor: It’s a big challenge to show all sides of the story, to go beyond the bullets and bombs and get to the human stories, which are not all stories of despair.With the MOD and the FCO we can tell the whole story, as opposed to only reporting a fraction from Baghdad. They have been incredibly supportive. But we are in a different position to some other broadcasters, having had a non-stop presence in Iraq for the last four years.
|Richard Beeston The Times diplomatic editor: Ideally we would be able to travel in Iraq independently, but the security situation is so bad that we have to rely on the military. Soldiers complain that there are not enough journalists reporting what they are doing and the army has always been very accommodating. But my impression has been that the MOD feel that the less coverage the better. We need to take a decision that if we want to be engaged in Iraq and sacrifice lives, the public has a right to know.|
|Martin Fewell Channel 4 News deputy editor: We’ve always tried to be guided by editorial priorities in our coverage of Iraq. On two or three occasions, Jon Snow has anchored the programme from there, most recently on the day George Bush announced a ‘surge’ in US activity. And we embedded a team two weeks ago with the US military in Baghdad who captured some remarkable moments on the ground. We’ve avoided ‘annversary coverage’ per se. We’ve concentrated on getting our stories out when they’re ready. |
Mike Granatt, partner at Luther Pendragon, former DG of the Govt Information and Comms Service:
Beware: to measure this campaign simply by story content would miss the point by a mile.
Consider this. Most recent reports on Iraq could be described as a stream of gory snapshots focused on casualties, bombings, refugees and the political fallout in the UK and the US. Any rounded analysis has been largely confined to the media of the political classes, not the mass audience.
But the Government, mired by mistrust, has been desperate for the mass audience to understand the complexities.
They need public support for the continuing work to deliver a stable future. Entering Iraq might have proven a disaster, but a sudden if popular withdrawal could mean catastrophe.
Of course, the campaign analysis shows extensive reporting of many bad things. But it can be thoroughly misleading to equate the reporting of bad things with either bad reporting or bad PR. Context is everything.
Credible Government PR must always be about the consideration, delivery and assessment of strategy based on reality. This campaign’s strategy of extended, close-up reporting has been a well-judged risk.
It delivered very strong opportunities for the mass audience to hear about the complexities of Iraq. And it used the context of images which consistently arouse public support – British service personnel just doing their jobs, and civilians who just want to live their lives in peace.
So what would have represented real failure? Mistrust – and cynical reporting of the campaign itself.