ISSUES MANAGEMENT: War in Iraq -- the PR battles

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the latest conflict in Iraq. Adam Hill looks at how PR strategies have evolved as the war drags on.

Losing the PR fight: public support for UK troops in Iraq has diminished as the war continues
Losing the PR fight: public support for UK troops in Iraq has diminished as the war continues

On the evening of 19 March 2003, US-led coalition forces began their ‘Shock and Awe' bombing campaign against Baghdad and other targets in Iraq. One month previously, more than one mill­ion people had marched through London hoping to discourage just such an attack, but their protest fell on deaf ears.

On the face of it, the US and UK auth­orities - and their PR strategies - do not tend to be influenced by such shows of public disquiet. ‘I don't think they've paid any attention to public opinion,' observes one PR source. ‘It's been a purely military strategy.'

Yet this is not the whole story: PR strategies have altered to make sense of changing priorities. To take one exa­mple: Number 10, under then comms director Alastair Campbell, in 2002 laid the groundwork for war by putting out two dossiers on Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities.

But when weapons of mass destruction - crucial to the original case for war - were not found, a sceptical public were off­ered messaging on the ‘importance of democracy', something Bell Pottinger was hired to promote in Iraq in 2004.

Here, PRWeek looks at some of the specific PR battles being fought.

The Ministry of Defence's view
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) can bask in the media relations coup of getting UK editors to keep quiet over Prince Harry's posting to Afghanistan, but the Iraq war has seen no comparable comms victories.

For a while after UK forces entered Iraq there was a groundswell of public support for the invasion but the long, bloody campaign against insurgents that followed has seen that dissipate.

‘The way we have communicated has reflected this,' admits James Shelley, MoD director of news, who says his department has aimed to take a more ‘personal' approach. ‘Our strat­egy is to tell the story through the individual serviceman's or woman's eyes,' exp­lains Shelley.

Public opinion leans towards anti-war, but public support for the armed forces per se rem­ains high. ‘Our people rem­ain the best advocates for what they are doing,' argues Shelley.

Still, the new approach did not stop some journalists describing British troops' withdrawal from Basra city as a ‘retreat' six months ago - even though they were handing the town back to Iraqi forces.

The Royal British Legion's view
Five years of British military operations in Iraq have had a significant inf­luence on the Royal British Legion's PR tactics. High levels of public support for soldiers - if not the war itself - have given the legion a strong platform to ramp up its calls for better welfare for inj­ured service personnel.

Stuart GendallIn the past year alone the number of beneficiaries of its work aged 35 or under has increased by 30 per cent. ‘We have shifted our messaging towards the use of modern stories about younger service and ex-service people,' explains Stuart Gendall, the legion's director of corporate comms.

‘We could see the public were unhappy with a prolonged deployment in Iraq, and there was also a certain amount of leadership unrest in party politics. That gave us a perfect background to launch our Honour the Covenant campaign.'

Aimed at persuading the Government to provide the service community with better medical care and compensation when injuries happen, and fairer inquiries when death occurs, the campaign has gained more than 10,000 signatories to its website. ‘This shift in emphasis has ‘modernised' our image in some minds, bringing home the relevance of our work,' says Gendall.

‘The images of injured young people and needy families have lent special poignancy to both our Poppy Appeal and Remembrance messaging.' Gendall says there has been a noticeable shift in the age and social profile of the legion's supporter base following recent campaigns. Crucially, there have also been policy changes in the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, and a new debate on the Government's responsibilities tow­ards the service community.

Stop the War Coalition's view
As it gears up for a second mass demonstration on 15 March, when it will call for troops to withdraw, Stop the War Coalition (STW) suggests public perception of the Iraq conflict has not altered its PR strategy at all.

This is largely because it saw the public as broadly anti-war in 2003 but as solidly so now. ‘In a way, our attitude hasn't changed over the five years,' says press officer David Wilson. ‘The argument remains almost static. We hammer on the same door.'

Press releases are the organisation's most frequent PR tool. ‘We have a massive press release list,' reports Wilson, although he argues that STW has been marginalised by some of the media, in particular the BBC after the Hutton report, while finding supporters on The Independent and The Guardian. The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have been receptive to messaging when it concerns troop welfare, he adds.

Media relations efforts have recen­tly centred on Ben Griffin, an SAS soldier with an exemplary service record who in 2006 refused to fight on in Iraq and resigned from the army on the grounds that the war was ‘immoral'.

Last month the Ministry of Defence obtained an injunction from the High Court silencing Griffin after he gave interviews about rendition and torture in Iraq. STW has also worked with the Military Families Against the War group and has mobilised celebrity support.

The journalist's view
Jason Burke was The Observer's chief foreign correspondent and based in Baghdad in 2003-04. He has since ret­urned to the country to report several times. Now based in Paris, he is The
Observer's Europe editor and author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.

Although he says he ‘barely dealt' with the MoD when he was based in Iraq, Burke thinks Number 10's presentation of the invasion and occupation has actually changed radically over time: ‘Before the invasion the focus was on the threat from Saddam.

Afterwards Iraq was all about helping the Iraqis and the humanitar­ian achievement of deposing Saddam Hussein.' Journalists had little contact with the Iraqi authorities on the ground, he adds: ‘There was no real "Iraqi government" for a long time. [It was] basic media management, if anything.'

In Baghdad, Burke saw a stark difference between his experience of reporting and that of the official line being put out to media. What was said to journalists in the high security International Zone, commonly called the Green Zone, centre of the US-led coalition's administration, often differed hugely from what he saw outside.

‘From the beginning in Iraq there was a massive disconnect,' he argues. ‘We used to go to briefings in the Green Zone in which we were told the country was safe and then go and rep­ort suicide bombings an hour later.'

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