Archive for the ‘Media Relations’ Category

Cristiano Ronaldo: loose lips sink ships

September 19, 2011

“People are jealous of me because I’m rich, handsome and a great player,” said Cristiano Ronaldo to reporters after his
team’s, Real Madrid, Champions League match against the Dinamo Zagreb. Ronaldo was complaining against the kicks he’d received from the Croatian players.

His team’s next game was against the Spanish Football League’s Levante. A team with a budget that pales in comparison to Real Madrid’s. A modest team. Levante’s players, after hearing Ronaldo’s statement, ironically said that when Ronaldo
talked about being “handsome, rich and a great player” they thought that he was talking about each and every one of them. Cristiano Ronaldo’s comments were interpreted by many as a clear allusion to players from smaller teams, such as
Dinamo Zagreb or Levante.

The training to know how to deal with the media isn’t only for politicians, businessmen and industry leaders, but also for elite sports figures such as Ronaldo. Why? Because we are not only talking about his comments portraying him as someone with a big ego, but also because of their direct impact on his team. Why? Because they clearly gave additional motivation to Levante in their match against Real Madrid.

Any team is always motivated in a game against Real Madrid, one of the best in the world. However, if Ronaldo asserts that others are jealous because he is handsome, rich and very good that clearly implies that the other lesser rivals are ugly,
poor, and bad. Is there a better venue to vindicate themselves, the supposed “ugly, poor, and bad” than in a game against Real Madrid?

The predictions were that Real Madrid would out shoot Levante on its own field. In fact, leading Real Madrid players such as Özil, Ronaldo and Higuaín even started the game as substitute players.

The final score was a real surprise. Levante was able to win with 1-0. A tie would have been a success, but they achieved a heroic victory and won the three points at play. Prior to the match, Real Madrid was one point ahead of FC Barcelona and this loss left it one point behind.

In addition to the other factors that affected the final score, is anyone in doubt of the extra push that Cristiano Ronaldo gave the Levante players clearly hurt Real Madrid?

That is why top-shelf players must undergo Media Training. Loose lips sink ships.

 

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Tucson: manejo exitoso de crisis

January 17, 2011

Cuando uno lee un editorial en The Washington Post del senador republicano John McCain titulado “Un discurso admirable del Presidente Obama”, queda claro que ese discurso tuvo que ser realmente memorable. El senador McCain, además, fue el candidato republicano en las últimas elecciones presidenciales. El rival directo de Barack Obama. En el editorial, McCain se refiere al discurso que el Presidente pronunció en el servicio conmemorativo por las víctimas del tiroteo en Tucson, Arizona, y, entre otras cosas, califica a Barack Obama de “patriota”.

El objetivo del discurso del Presidente era unir al país ante la tragedia. Es el deber de los presidentes en momentos como estos. Y el comentario general es que lo consiguió.

Obama criticó el ambiente de hostilidad política verbal que hay en Washington. El motivo es que los comentarios iniciales culparon a ese tenso clima político del ataque a la congresista Gabrielle Giffords en Tucson.

Muchos líderes, así como el Presidente, repitieron que tenemos que regresar a un escenario político en el cual se puede disentir activa y apasionadamente con otra persona, pero dentro de un marco de civismo.

Yo pienso que ese clima de ataque y contraataque políticos no es ni mucho menos un monopolio de los Estados Unidos. Eso ocurre en todos y cada uno de los países en los que he trabajado y vivido. Disentir agresivamente es algo inherente a la política. Es más, lo peligroso sería la falta de ese vivo debate, ya que significaría que no existe democracia.

Afortunadamente, y aunque todos recordamos dolorosas excepciones, en Estados Unidos esas disputas se resuelven en las urnas. Tucson fue una excepción. No queda ni siquiera claro si fue un intento de asesinato político contra una congresista basado en motivos ideológicos o simplemente la obra de un perturbado que se enfocó en la legisladora como se hubiera podido obsesionar con cualquier otra persona y por cualquier otro motivo. Todos los expertos coinciden en que el supuesto atacante, Jared Lee Loughner, sufre severos problemas mentales. De hecho, estudios del Servicio Secreto de Estados Unidos determinan que la gran mayoría de los así llamados “asesinatos políticos” en este país no tienen nada que ver con política. Tras muchas entrevistas con personas que han atentado, con y sin éxito, contra líderes políticos, los estudios concluyen que casi todos los atacantes sufren de problemas mentales y que ésa es la verdadera causa de los atentados. No la disensión política.

Hablando estrictamente desde el punto de vista comunicacional, lo que me parece claro es que la crisis se manejó magistralmente por todas las partes.

El país estuvo pegado a las pantallas de televisión durante varios días para informarse de todos los detalles de lo sucedido. La tragedia realmente impactó a la nación. Todas y cada una de las víctimas fueron pérdidas irreparables, pero el caso de la pequeña Christina-Taylor Green tocó sin duda de forma especial el corazón de los estadounidenses. Una niña de apenas nueve años nacida, paradójicamente, el 11 de septiembre del 2001. El día de los ataques terroristas contra las torres gemelas del World Trade Center en Nueva York y el Pentágono. Una pequeña a quien le atraía la política y que quería ver y escuchar en persona a la congresista.

La tarea del Presidente de unir a la nación en su discurso no era fácil debido al clima de división política al que me he referido. Sin embargo, no sólo hizo eso bien, sino que manejó la crisis de forma magistral.

El Presidente reaccionó enseguida ante lo ocurrido. Emitió rápidamente un comunicado de prensa. Después, compareció frente a las cámaras de televisión para dar su pésame a los familiares de las víctimas y expresar sus deseos de pronta recuperación para los heridos. Obama incluso envió al propio director del FBI a Arizona a liderar la investigación y ofreció todos los recursos federales que fueran necesarios. Su siguiente paso fue desplazarse personalmente junto a la Primera Dama a Tucson y asistir al servicio conmemorativo. En todo momento se vio a un presidente muy activo y en tono con el dolor del resto del país.

La oposición política republicana, de igual forma, actuó sin partidismos y enfocándose en lo importante, las víctimas, y dejando de lado cualquier lucha partidista. Un ejemplo es el editorial por parte del senador McCain. Algo interpretado como un ejemplo de elegancia, clase, responsabilidad y liderazgo político de primer nivel por parte del senador republicano.

Alguien que sí levantó controversia fue la ex candidata a vicepresidenta por el Partido Republicano, Sarah Palin.  La ex gobernadora de Alaska, en un mensaje en video lanzado a través de su página en Facebook, usó un término históricamente interpretado como antisemita y que sin duda distrajo a su audiencia de su mensaje principal. Otros también la criticaron por hablar demasiado de política y de no centrarse más en las víctimas.

Algunos la habían acusado de crear un clima político propicio para la confrontación en lugares como Arizona. Los líderes políticos nacionales, tanto demócratas como republicanos, repitieron que el único responsable de una tragedia semejante es quien apretó el gatillo.

Muchos de los defensores de Palin dicen que ella no entendió el contexto de la frase que utilizó. Pocos se explican, de todas formas, cómo ninguno de sus asesores dio una señal de alarma al respecto. Algo que sólo echó aún más leña al fuego de las personas que la acusan de no tener la preparación intelectual necesaria para ser presidenta.

No obstante, la crisis fue en general, muy bien manejada por todas las partes involucradas.

La actuación del Presidente fue alabada hasta por sus más feroces críticos republicanos. La oposición republicana fue alabada por los demócratas. La clase política mostró una unión poco habitual en Washington. No se enfocaron en ellos sino en la tragedia en sí y urgieron a un tono político más respetuoso.

Los partidarios del uso de armas, a pesar de la tragedia, no perdieron terreno. De hecho tan sólo días después del tiroteo hubo una feria de armas en Arizona a la que acudieron miles de personas. Ellos insisten en que el problema no son las armas y que cualquier ciudadano tiene el derecho constitucional a tenerlas. Según ellos, el problema es controlar que criminales y personas desequilibradas mentalmente no tengan acceso a las mismas. Aunque el tema de las armas obviamente se tocó durante las coberturas periodísticas de la tragedia, el tiroteo no motivó realmente un profundo debate nacional sobre el uso de armas en Estados Unidos. Sin duda los grupos pro armas supieron también tratar con éxito esta crisis. Dieron su posición, pero respetando el dolor de las víctimas. Lograron evitar que se produjera un sentimiento popular en su contra que pudiera propiciar legislación federal significativa contra sus intereses.

Otro de los grupos que manejaron muy bien la situación fueron los médicos involucrados en la tragedia. Se hicieron siempre disponibles, dieron partes constantes de la evolución de los heridos, comunicaron con efectividad y de forma entendible todos los procedimientos médicos y mostraron clara simpatía con el sufrimiento de los familiares. Se manejaron con enorme profesionalidad en una situación ciertamente agotadora tanto física como mentalmente. Y frente a cientos de periodistas de todo el mundo.

Esto nos indica que una de los puntos principales para manejar con éxito cualquier crisis es prepararse para ella antes de que ocurra. Los médicos y el hospital sin duda lo hicieron. Algo así puede ocurrir desgraciadamente cualquier día y esa capacidad de comunicar efectivamente no se puede improvisar.

Este es un ejemplo de lo bien que se ha manejado una crisis, pero hay una larga lista de crisis muy mal manejadas a todos los niveles que han impactado muy negativamente en la reputación no sólo de los involucrados directamente en la crisis sino, por ejemplo, en líderes políticos al más alto nivel.  Si estudian con atención cómo se reaccionó en Tucson, sin duda podrán estar mejor preparados para las futuras crisis, que, sin duda, tendrán que afrontar algún día.

From Miners to Celebrities… and All the Way to the Bank

October 16, 2010

 “Chile will be remembered and recognized not for Pinochet, but as an example of unity, leadership and valor, faith and success,” stated Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera to the Times of London.

Chile has written a story that will be very difficult to overcome not only in the field of mine disaster rescues, but of public relations.

As the Chinese proverb so well states, every crisis is an opportunity and the Chilean authorities have masterfully positioned their country during this crisis as not only an empathetic, brave and hard-working nation, but as an especially effective one.  That knows how to do things correctly.  A model to be followed.  No public relations campaign, not even one with an unlimited budget, would have been able to get these results.  Not by a long shot.

The rescue work at the San José de Copiapó mine was done by the book.  Rescuing all the miners was undoubtedly a miracle, but a miracle that became a reality thanks to a minutely planned strategy that was executed with the utmost level of professionalism.  Nothing was left to chance.

Today, after this epic rescue, any average observer from around the world would think that Chile has one of the safest mining industries in the world.  But they would be wrong.  According to CNN, last year 50 people lost their lives in Chile’s mines.  Even though mining represents 40% of the national income, it is only 1% of the world’s market.  And with this 1%, Chile contributes 8% of the world’s mining accidents.  That is, Chile has a clearly high number of mining accidents.  The government states that this is a problem limited to small companies which lack the resources to prevent them.  CNN also points out that the area where this accident took place only has three government inspectors for 800 mines, adding that this accident should never have happened because the safety issues at the mine were well-known.  The mine had actually been shut down in 2007.  And, one of the first things that the miners did after being rescued was to ask the President to take the necessary measures to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

Nonetheless, the perception is that Chile’s mining industry is excellent in terms of security and, as we all know, perception is for all practical purposes 90% of reality.  And this has been achieved by the Santiago government, apart from having organized a successful rescue mission, through a perfectly executed media show. 

First of all, and prior to their rescue, the authorities provided media training to the miners to teach them how to deal with the media.  Yes, you read it right.  The miners learned about how to deal with the media at 700 meters below the earth’s surface.  Secondly, the government provided full-access coverage to everything that was happening.  This was a decision that was not only intelligent, but also brave because the rescue mission was a success – it could have been a failure.  A failure covered by 2,000 reporters and millions of television viewers as witnesses.

TV cameras were everywhere and, most importantly, all the participants in the rescue cooperated 100% with the coverage.  It was clear that they had been told what to do.  Even the doctors at the hospital where the miners were being treated opened the doors over and over again so that the cameras could better film the miners on their gurneys. 

And when I say that the cameras were everywhere, I mean they were everywhere.  Even, as incredibly as this may seem, inside the mine: 700 meters below the surface.  Viewers could see the miners in real time, as well as the first rescuers who descended to help them.  This allowed for the levels of emotion to reach stratospheric heights and, therefore, had viewers all over the world glued to their television sets and computers to watch the miracle live.

There were also cameras on the miners’ helmets, which allowed us to view their ascent on the Phoenix rescue capsule over the narrow tunnel from the mine to the surface.  Of course, there were cameras following every move of the above-ground rescue equipment and rescuers, of the awaiting families and of Chileans all over the country (and the world) crying as they proudly waved the Chilean flag.  And, naturally, a camera witnessed the first moments when each miner emerged from the Phoenix, hugging and kissing their relatives and immediately after hugging President Piñera, the Mining Minister and their rescuers.  It was impossible to remain unmoved.

If Chile’s government had not been as intelligent and hadn’t provided those images, the level of interest about this story would not have been the same.  Even though all the images were provided by the government and no other cameras were allowed to transmit, the truth is that those images were made available to everyone.  Limiting access to only the government’s cameras is never the ideal situation, because it can be perceived as biased, it is easy to understand that it was impossible to allow 2,000 reporters direct access to the rescue zone.  It really was a total of 2,000 international reporters that traveled to that remote region of Chile to cover this story.  There is a factor of security and distraction that cannot be ignored. 

Everyone lived the odyssey live. The words, the emotions, the hugs, the tears of joy.  Chile was able to create an emotional connection with millions and millions of people all over the globe.  We were all Chileans at that time and we were moved just as if we were witnessing the rescue on site with them.

However, there have been many mining accidents that have been completely ignored by the media. By facilitating coverage, the government was able to take advantage of a golden opportunity to receive support for the rescue operation and reinforce the country’s image as a place where things are done correctly.  The rescue mission has cost between 20 and 30 million dollars, a third of which will be covered by donations.

Everyone, with the possible exception of the mine’s owners, has come out a winner.  The miners were rescued and Chile is admired all over the world.  Such is the case of Laurence Golborne, the Mining Minister, who has an 87% approval rating and is already being touted as a possible successor to President Piñera in the 2013 elections.  

This story teaches us the importance of openness.  Of transparency.  We must help the media to do their job.  Hiding facts and not providing information is the worst thing to do.  Because, among other things, the media always finds out what it needs to find out.

In January 2006, I covered the accident at the Sago mine in West Virginia, USA.  It was an information disaster.  Journalists received information piecemeal, and then to make matters worse we were provided erroneous information.  The authorities even said, mistakenly as it turned out, that 12 miners had survived the explosion.  All the news outlets relayed the news enthusiastically.  After the tense hours of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones, the families began to celebrate the miracle.  However, the information was subsequently refuted.  Only one miner survived.  It is not difficult to imagine the families’ reaction once they found out the news.

I also remember the accident at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Mexico in February 2006.  It was estimated that 65 miners were trapped below ground.  The mining company said that they were 150 meters below the surface.  The accident took place on February 19.  On February 25, the company announced that “there was no chance of any survivors after the methane explosion.”  The next day the authorities announced that the mine would be closed indefinitely.

In Chile there was also great pessimism about the situation with the miners.  On August 22, the Mining Minister said that the possibilities of finding the miners alive were slim.  We have to remember that it wasn’t until 17 days after the accident that contact was made with the miners.  Seventeen days!  However, the authorities, despite the initial pessimism, promised not to give up and they didn’t.  They were true to their word.  And the prize was when the miners were heard from and, after a tense 69 days of wait, all the miners were rescued safe and sound.  All 33 miners.

Without putting into question the Chilean government’s conviction and compromise with the rescue mission, whether or not there was media coverage, does anyone put in doubt that the media’s presence and interest help in similar situations to ensure that full-blown rescue efforts continue?  What would happen in these disasters if no cameras reached the area to explain in images the titanic struggle to save the miners trapped under tons of stones?  What happens is that many times the effort is not as strong and the possibilities of saving those lives are greatly reduced.  In Mexico’s case there was quite a bit of coverage, but it cannot be compared with the Chilean government’s deployment. The Chileans became masters of communication.  The media’s work is essential in this type of situations and the intelligent Chilean government understood this perfectly.  And now, Chile’s image in the world has been incredibly strengthened.

Another very intelligent decision was to train the miners about how to deal with the media.  First of all because of psychological issues, and secondly because of practical matters.

Do you remember the accident in 1972 when a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes?  After another epic story of how to survive in below zero temperatures after they had been given for dead, 16 people survived.  Well, some of those survivors visited the mine in Chile to share with the miners their experiences after being rescued.  To go from being an anonymous miner to being known internationally practically overnight, is not always an easy transition.

The Chilean authorities explained to the miners that there were many reporters waiting for them, that all of them wanted to interview them and that they would be very persistent to get those interviews.  That their lives would be open to scrutiny, for better or worse.  We now even know the names of one of the miners’ mistress.  The training served to at least be a bit more ready for what was to come.

But there is another angle – the money.  The miners made $1,600 a month for their hard work.  Undoubtedly, this rescue will be told in books and movies, and the miners will travel the world telling their stories in person.

The Real Madrid and Manchester soccer teams have invited them to their games.  A Greek mining company has invited them to vacation in Greece’s paradisiacal islands.  And they will get many more invitations, both as prizes and paying them for their attendance.  Some outlets will even pay them a lot of money to interview them.

The miners said that they reached an agreement among themselves to share all their earnings from sharing their experiences about the accident.  Even if this does finally happen, who will make the most money?  Obviously, the person who best knows how to explain what happened, who best articulates the story, the one who communicates the most.  That person will be the one to travel and give speeches, that person will be preferred by television networks for interviews.  Even if the training they received was, for obvious reasons, very basic, knowing just a little better how to effectively communicate a message is something that can make a fundamental difference in the lives of the miners.  If they are skillful, they will never have to work another day in their lives.

Journalism on Life Support

July 24, 2010

With a few honorable exceptions, in my opinion, journalism is clearly declining.  Every day it becomes less relevant when it comes to exercising its primary function as an independent mechanism of oversight and investigation of the government and organizations regarding issues of vital importance for our society.  The latest example is the surreal case of Shirley Sherrod.

For openers, it is surreal because President Obama called her twice, couldn’t reach her and she didn’t even return his call until the following day.  What?  What do you mean?  THE President Obama?  The one that world leaders constantly court and go through hoops to hold fleeting meetings with at the White House?  Yes, the very same.  Just like you have read.  And when he was finally able to speak with her, it was to apologize.  And this is just the latest of the twists in this story of journalism-fiction.

What could have led to this Presidential apology?  Mrs. Sherrod was an employee of the US Department of Agriculture.  This past March 27, Sherrod made a speech at an event of the NAACP, an organization that defends the civil rights of minorities in the United States.  A few days ago, a blogger and conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, uploaded on YouTube a video clip of Mrs. Sherrod’s remarks.

On the video, she admitted that 24 years ago she hesitated about whether or not to help a white farmer who came to her for assistance to save his farm.  The reason?  He was White.  At the time, Sherrod worked in the south of the United States for a non-profit agency established to help African-American farmers.  Mrs. Sherrod is African-American.

When the media got a hold of the video, all hell broke loose.  A strange and schizophrenic virus took over all media outlets, the Administration, as well as the public.  A first year journalism student would have behaved in a more professional, ethical and responsible manner than the reporters who covered this story.

Especially, the conservative media began to attack Sherrod furiously, accusing her of being a racist.  Like an out-of-control forest fire, the video spread throughout the Internet and the attacks increased, culminating in the Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to fire Mrs. Sherrod.  Some commentators have said that the White House responded so quickly and forcefully out of fear that the Administration of an African-American president would be accused of racism against Whites.

There’s a small problem.  It happens that the video uploaded to YouTube was a specifically edited clip of what Mrs. Sherrod said during the NAACP event.  The real story told by Sherrod was the complete opposite:  one of redemption and racial reconciliation.

At the event, Sherrod acknowledged her previously held prejudices, her inner struggles and stated that she finally decided that she and the farmer were human beings and that there were no differences between them.  She not only helped the White farmer to save his farm but a long-lasting friendship grew from their encounter.  The farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family confirmed that everything that Mrs. Sherrod said was true.  That is, the exact opposite of the image that the world built of Mrs. Sherrod was real.  However, there she was: fired from her job, slandered and constantly criticized by one and all.

Afterwards, the conservative blogger acknowledged that the video he uploaded to YouTube was actually an edited version of the speech.  According to him, the people who gave it to him never told him that the video was made up of selected clips.  Whether or not this is true, the damage was already done and journalism in general suffered a serious setback.  Others accuse the blogger of knowing exactly what he was uploading and that he did it anyway to create a controversy that attacked the Obama Administration and promote his blog.

Did no one verify to make sure that the story and the accusations were true? Where did journalistic ethics go? Where are objectivity, the sense of information equity and justice?  Did nobody bother to request a complete copy of the speech to find out if the quotes reflected accurately the spirit of what was said?  Or was it that, just like it happened, the quotes were taken out of context?  Did anyone find someone who actually attended the event to confirm the authenticity of the remarks?  Did anyone check with a variety of sources to verify the information? Did an experienced editor or producer review the story before printing or airing it? Was nobody suspicious that an organization such as the NAACP, which is on the forefront of calls for social harmony, would invite a supposedly racist speaker to their event? Did this simple fact not raise the alarm?  Did anyone bother to speak with Mrs. Sherrod to allow her to defend herself? Did anyone demand that the story not be made public until all the information had been verified, to ensure that irreparable damage to her reputation was not made if the accusations were not true? My goodness, I could go on and on all day writing this type of questions.  These are the basic tenets of journalism.

However, as I mentioned previously, this situation goes further.  How could the Obama Administration fire someone without verifying that the accusations were true, basing this decision only on press reports?  Is it that those in the government do not know that just because something is published by the media it is not necessarily true?  Then, is it true that, as some people insist, President Obama was actually born in Kenya and that instead of being a Christian is actually a Muslim?  Is it true then that Elvis Presley was having breakfast this morning in Las Vegas? And, how is it possible that the general population can also let itself be influenced in such a manner by the media without displaying the least interest in finding out whether or not this story was true?  Did anyone say, “Wait a minute, is this true? Could someone be making too big a deal out of this?  Couldn’t these be politically motivated falsities?  Has she been given the opportunity to defend herself?”?  No, no one said anything and the life of a woman who has fought during decades on behalf of others’ civil rights, regardless of their skin color, radically changed in a matter of days.  Suddenly, the entire country saw her as a racist.

When everyone finally realized the enormity of the mistake they had made, a great feeling of collective guilt took over.  The Secretary of Agriculture apologized during a press conference and offered her another job.  Some of news outlets also apologized and President Obama himself called her to apologize on behalf of his Administration.

However, once again, this case goes beyond this one situation affecting Mrs. Sherrod.  These are the consequences of what we see in journalism nowadays.  On the one hand, newspapers, television and radio stations fire a large number of experienced journalists to replace them with recently graduated one who are paid a third of the fired journalists’ salaries.  However, they clearly have no experience.  News bureaus have less and less true professional journalists on staff and those who are still around have an enormous amount of work.  They cannot properly do their job.  It is not their fault.  Journalists nowadays have to do the work of two or three people, support the online side of the news, as well as sometimes film and edit the stories they cover.  It is impossible to deliver good, solid work as a journalist under these conditions.

On the other hand, there is the emergence of the so-called blogosphere, which isn’t necessarily journalism.  Many times it is its very opposite.  A weird world where we come across true professionals, but also an army of lunatics and people without the most basic knowledge of issues or journalism but who sell themselves as “serious” journalists.  That, of course, without including the throng of crazed political activists who want to make themselves pass for journalists and don’t have a clue about what they’re writing about.  The result is that you can come across anything on the Web, but readers don’t always know or can’t distinguish between good information and blatant propaganda.

Media outlets always want to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to reporting news.  It is the nature of the business.  To be first.  However, with the arrival of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the struggle is now down to beating the competition by mere seconds.  The pressure to be first is very strong and, as we can see from this example, the right steps are not always taken before publishing or going on air with a story.  Speed trumps the truth.

The media needs to be an institution where respected journalists and professionals come together and are able to inform the nation in an independent way. People who dedicate their lives to investigate and report the news objectively and truthfully to their readers, viewers, and listeners.  They have to be the point of reference for the public, where they can confidently go to get the news.  The media cannot be the circus sideshow that we just saw with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have profound admiration for journalists who embrace and take seriously their profession.  They are vital to our society.  A real democracy cannot function without a strong, independent, truthful, qualified and brave media.  In spite of this, I think that journalists who are not in this group do real damage to our society and we have to protect ourselves from them.

Many will view this episode as anecdotal, but the problem is that it isn’t.  It represents a very dangerous tendency.  Do you remember the Iraq War?  Do you remember the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly being hidden in Iraq?  The media did a terrible job in its coverage prior to the war.  And what can be said about the current economic crisis?  How is it possible that financial sector journalists didn’t investigate the problem that was brewing?  Now we know that more than a few predicted something was going to happen, but where were those reporters to talk about these concerns, about the imminent danger of a financial catastrophe?  Surely, due to the decrease in newsroom budgets, these reporters were covering several stories a day and didn’t have the time to cover any of them properly.

From my vantage point, there are only a handful of news media outlets with the financial resources and professional staff to truly make a difference in today’s media world.  Most journalists are doing the work of several people or are deeply enmeshed in looking for the daily irrelevant scandal to increase viewership, ratings, and the number of newspapers or magazines sold.  Many bloggers don’t even care if what they write is true or a lie.  Everything is geared to creating a scandal to get the most hits on their page.  And with that, to increase their notoriety.  Fame.  Others, with political motivations, whether on the right or left, don’t even care about that; their concern is to politically hurt their opponents.  Again, without caring if their accusations are true or merely made-up.  As you well know, a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

All of this is truly dangerous for our democracy and for the overall well-being of our society.  Crises bring about serious economic problems for millions of families.  Wars bring about death and enormous debt.  The public has a right to be well-informed to be able to make important decisions.  Journalism’s mission is to provide this information.  It has always been said that journalism “informs, educates, and entertains.”  From my point of view, today’s journalism informs very little, educates even less, and entertains us more and more every day.

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The General in his Labyrinth

June 24, 2010

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.