There’s sense in what the senior Australian officer in Afghanistan said this week about the way the military has managed its messaging.
“I do fear that Australians in general don’t understand what we’re doing here,” General John Cantwell told the Sydney Morning Herald. “From the military side, I would contend that we have tended to be, occasionally, too opaque about what we do.”
Senior military officers don’t speak out often. What they say is either heavily couched in qualification or expresses a view designed to prompt action from their political masters.
The good General is doing the latter - and he’s spot-on.
The plausible reason for Australia (and others) being on the ground in Afghanistan – tying up terrorists to lessen the threat elsewhere – has been poorly communicated. How our troops are playing their role, even more so.
With the benefit of mates who have worked in Australian Defence Force Public Relations (and having contracted to the ADF on the odd occasion), the overwhelming impression is that this is an organisation that spends inordinate energy on preparing to do PR, but ultimately has its hands tied by interference and/or its own closed culture.
Openness and the ADF have been an oxymoron for 20 years, and while only a fool would advocate throwing open the windows and letting the whole world peer in, the balance has gone too far the other way.
Put simply, people can’t form a positive opinion about something that they don’t understand or on the basis of information that looks heavily doctored. As consumers of media, they’ve become much more educated.
Most ADF PR operatives are barred from burping in public without sign-off from functionaries at every level of an organisational chart that has more layers than a late night Elvis Presley sandwich.
Both sides of politics have been guilty of mandating that the most innocuous of media statements be Ministerially massaged before it sees the light of day. Or worse, they’ve changed captions on photos.
Army PR used to take its lead from the Americans and learned first-hand in Vietnam about giving military correspondents reasonable operational access. Today’s version of embedding reporters rarely goes further than granting Access All Areas passes to bend-the-lines Jimmy Barnes concerts.
The lesson for business and civilian organisation is salutary: Don’t whinge that people don’t understand what you do if you haven’t tried to talk to them.