The General in his Labyrinth

The newest victim of a lack of Media Training is a US Army general by the name of Stanley McChrystal.  Even though he had a successful 35 year-long career in the Armed Forces, it quickly crashed down because he was not ready to deal with the media.

A four-star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan could hardly be considered stupid.  Therefore, it begs the question:  How could he make such a fatal mistake?

I have covered many wars and can say that I have not observed armed forces where its members can speak with as much freedom as those of the United States.  They are always accessible on the battlefield and their senior commanders make them available for interviews.  Sometimes they praise their leaders’ decisions and other times they don’t, freely talking about their point of view.  They also talk about whether or not they agree or disagree with fighting in a specific campaign.  This type of openness is not usual among other armed forces.

However, McChrystal clearly went above and beyond this openness.  During an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine he said that the White House’s National Security Advisor was a “clown,” stated that President Obama seemed to be “intimidated and absent” while meeting with US military leaders, referred to Vice President Joe Biden with an euphemism that cannot be quoted on this blog and which definitely was not a compliment, and on top of all of this, pretty much said that the US Ambassador to Kabul was a traitor.

It seems obvious to me that McChrystal did not intend to make these critical comments and then resign because he disagreed with how the war in Afghanistan was being carried out.  If this had been the case, after reading the interview, he would not have immediately called Vice President Joe Biden to apologize nor would he have waited until President Obama decided whether or not to fire him.  He would have preemptively resigned.  His press assistant did immediately lose his job.

McChrystal’s problem is that he was never trained about how to deal with the media.

Was the reporter who interviewed him sufficiently clear when he told him that everything McChrystal said would be used in the article?  Did McChrystal and his advisors think they could speak candidly with the journalist and that whatever they said would not be published and would be considered comments among “friends”?  Did they make it perfectly clear to the journalist that all of those comments were “off the record”?  Does McChrystal understand that a journalist’s main loyalty is not to his “new military friends” but to get good stories for his or her publication or channel?

Neither McChrystal nor his advisors deny making the statements in question, but I think that they never thought that they would be quoted verbatim.  No one wants to end such a distinguished career on such a disgraceful note.

A simple Media Training course would have saved McChrystal from this embarrassing end to his career and he would still be the supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Tony Hayward, British Petroleum’s CEO, would also have spared himself from the many confrontations he has faced and saved quite a bit of money if he had been trained properly.  Hayward’s mistakes during the Gulf of Mexico crisis are way too many to outline in this article.  His behavior only served to exacerbate an already difficult situation.

General McChrystal is a product of the Special Forces.  A secretive organization that works in the shadows, away from the public eye.  McChrystal was admired by his subordinates because he led by example.  In 2005, for example, he led a small group of commandoes in Iraq in a pre-dawn attack against one of the hideouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda leader who was subsequently killed in combat.  The insurgents surrounded the small group of US soldiers and McChrystal fought valiantly in the intense battle.  It is not usual for a four-star general to risk his life in such a way.

McChrystal was used to the world of undercover operations.  To live in the shadows.  However, when he was named to such a high-profile job as that of supreme commander of ground forces of the Afghan war, he entered a completely different and unknown world for him.  And one of the most drastic changes was the continuous contact with the press.

It is obvious to me that no one trained him to deal effectively with the media.  A mistake that decimates his 35-year career of sacrifice for his nation.  He leaves through the back door, accused by the President of questioning the civil authority over the Pentagon and of bringing division to the team in charge of the war in Afghanistan.  Strong accusations all, especially now that the conflict in that country intensifies and the number of dead Americans is on the increase.  The great majority of Americans, according to recent polls, don’t see the reason behind continuing the war.  This incident with McChrystal definitely does not help the Administration at this junction.

In a society such as ours, with an ongoing news cycle where information flows 24 hours a day, Media Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity for anyone who is or wants to be a part of that cycle.

Media Training should be a required part of the curriculum at colleges and universities.  Whether for members of the military, scientists, physicians, economists, or basically any professional.

For example, someone can spend years in business school preparing to be an excellent manager.  However, if he or she does not know how to communicate effectively, they will miss an important value added component.  Not only because they miss out on opportunities to get free, positive publicity through the media.  Or because they won’t be ready to communicate well during times of crisis.  But, also because all these techniques to communicate effectively with the media are also applicable to internal communications in any organization.  And of course, they can also be used to communicate effectively with external stakeholders.  

The victims of this lack of Media Training will continue to surface.  McChrystal is only the most recent one.  A new one will soon come to our attention.  Stay tuned.

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