School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Military Public Relations in the Americas by Stephen Johnson

Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies
REDES 2001
Research and Education in Defense and Security Studies
May 22-25, 2001, Washington DC

Panel on Military-Media Relations

Military Public Relations in the Americas:
Learning to Promote the Flow

By Stephen Johnson

Policy Analyst for Latin America
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
The Heritage Foundation
214 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002


The unrestricted flow of information is the lifeblood of any democracy. Public control of government institutions especially depends on truthful accounting of activities conducted in the name of the citizenry. Public affairs is the effort of government institutions to identify with the citizens' interest, seek informed support, and render accounts of work performed. The power of public opinion and the need to maintain public favor are concepts long appreciated throughout history. In the United States they have guided the actions of the earliest patriots and have shaped the nature of government institutions. In the 20th century, the U.S. Armed Forces developed these concepts to a science to safeguard the support of the U.S. citizens who supply the human and financial resources to make these institutions work. Stable democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon in Latin America. There, nascent democratic institutions and especially the armed forces face the same challenge of gaining consensus and identifying with the public interest - but without the extensive experience that has made public relations almost a habit in the U.S. military. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but new perspectives will be needed to adopt a communications strategy that emphasizes openness over previous traditions of isolation.

Military public relations is the result of culture and necessity. In the United States, such institutional communication is part of a tradition that has long supported an open marketplace of ideas and a high level of confidence between citizens who relate to each other based on a commonly accepted social contract. In contrast, public relations in Latin America only now is developing as an official government function. Just 20 years ago authoritarian regimes prevailed and most armies served either the interests of dictators or domineering political parties. At the social level, personal confidence rarely extended beyond family and close friends and there was little reliance on outside legal institutions. Consequently, Latin American citizens tended to guard confidences rather than share information. This was especially true in the ranks of the armed forces which often existed as a society outside of society.

Today, most countries in the western hemisphere have civilian, elected leaders. They trade with the rest of the world, and have diplomatic commitments based on global norms, and share information on the internet as part of a larger world community. Latin American citizens are better educated, more plugged in to local and world news, and restricting communication is becoming less and less the norm.

Correspondingly, Latin American armies in the service of civilian democratic government have suddenly discovered the need to develop a voice. What can be borrowed from the communitarian North American experience and can it be adapted to armed forces that until now have maintained themselves as institutions apart from the rest of society?

A Long History of Talk

Greek philosophers talked about popular will, obviously aware that the polity as a whole might have an opinion. The Romans coined the term vox populi, and in more recent times Napoleon supposedly warned that an antagonistic newspaper could be worse than 1,000 bayonets. But in the United States, what we call public relations developed into an art as far back as colonial times.

Before the American Revolution, self-government was a part of life in the English colonies. It thrived on publicity and propaganda. Men like Samuel Adams of Boston were a master communicators who used pamphlets, symbols, and slogans to whip up anti-British sentiment. Probably better known today for the beer that bears his likeness, Adams was one of the chief instigators of the Boston Tea Party, a staged event that provoked an attack by the British that helped inspire the fight for American independence. Immediately after the British punished the city of Boston, American patriots insured that their version of the story was heard first in the colonies and across the seas. In fact, an account by the colonists reached London 11 days before that of the British general who ordered the attack.

Following independence, America's first president George Washington, toured the colonies from north to south soliciting public views. Today our chief executives carry on this tradition of collecting feedback and representing the government in the form of 'town hall meetings' and press conferences. In his farewell address Washington even remarked, '. . . as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.'

As the art of public communication developed in politics, it temporarily lost currency in the American military. By the time of the Civil War, official news from the battlefield came from sporadic proclamations in Congress or by interviews infrequently granted to the press. As a consequence, the public in both the North and South grew suspicious of the sacrifice it was asked to make. Correspondents roamed the fronts freely at will and provided stories of carnage and incompetence. Letters written by soldiers to families back home often wound up in local newspapers substituting for news accounts.

American military public affairs remained in such an infancy until World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson established the civilian Committee on Public Information to travel across the country to boost public support for the war effort by giving speeches in churches, schools, and service clubs. At the end of the conflict, a public information unit was organized in the Army's Military Intelligence Division. In 1929, it was renamed the Public Relations Branch and in 1940 was taken out of intelligence altogether and transferred to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff and then to the Secretary of War. Once World War II began, its handful of personnel grew to more than 3,000 persons cranking out stories from the fronts, facilitating newsreel and radio coverage, and urging public support for the troops. The Navy and Army Air Corps also expanded their public relations staffs, providing information, censoring some news, and helping war correspondents get their stories. When the war was over, military public relations had become part of the armed forces mission in war and peace.

Lessons Learned

Before the age of television and electronic journalism, government public affairs officers were able to shape battlefield news by limiting access and providing proprietary accounts. During the United States' undeclared war with Vietnam, military public affairs officers found that was no longer possible with the advent of jet travel and rapidly evolving electronic news gathering techniques. Furthermore, the White House and senior Department of Defense leadership took command of public communications efforts to ensure favorable reporting of their decisions and policies. Unfortunately for all concerned, they tried to censor news at a time when reporters were not only in the field, but talking to the enemy as well. As correspondents brought Vietnam into American living rooms every night, it became impossible for U.S. officials to deny they were propping up a corrupt government and escalating U.S. commitments without visible results. Soon public opinion turned against the effort and led President Lyndon Johnson to step down after one only full term in office.

While Vietnam was a disastrous experience that cost more than 50,000 American lives and ended in defeat, it provided valuable lessons about how not to conduct military public affairs. To their credit, our armed forces put what they learned to good use in establishing new doctrine. As a result, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 provoking U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf, the Department of Defense (DoD) did everything it could to give reporters a ringside seat and unprecedented access. The Department flew reporters to Saudi Arabia to cover the war at public expense, and journalists even went on combat missions. Both the press office in the field and the public affairs offices in the Pentagon were staffed on a 24-hour basis. Further, battlefield information was depoliticized. Political spin was left to the politicians in Washington and news combat came from the troops.

U.S. Military Public Affairs Philosophy

Today, public affairs is a vital mission in the United States Armed Forces. It is supported by the notion that government must render accounts for the resources given to it by the people. Moreover, the military - which defends the nation from external enemies and occasionally puts American sons and daughters in harm's way - is obliged to keep family members informed of the safety of the nation and their relatives in uniform. Perhaps no other government department has such a responsibility other than the presidency. And no other agency has such a well-oiled and efficient public communications machine as the Department of Defense and its three military branches.

The reason is twofold. First, effective public affairs strengthens the armed forces' ability to carry out its missions in war and peace by providing timely, accurate information about the military to soldiers, their families, citizens, and to the general public. At the core of the public affairs mission is the concept that both soldiers and citizens should understand the role of the institution. Informed soldiers are more likely to survive and win if they know why they fight and how well they are doing it. At the same time, informed citizens are more likely to give soldiers their sympathy and support. Battles are won, disasters are averted, and rescues accomplished when there is favorable public opinion. When people don't understand that what their soldiers do for them, there is skepticism and distrust. Rumor fills the vacuum when there are no facts.

Second, public affairs also helps prevent war. Deterring outside aggression is only possible when potential adversaries know that U.S. armed forces are trained, equipped, and prepared to defend their country, interests, and friends.

How this is done has evolved along with technology, but there is an overall guiding principle that the U.S. military does not own a printing press or a broadcasting station to force feed the American public with propaganda. Internal television and radio networks exist, websites act as electronic bulletin boards, and base newspapers may carry news of the military community. But the primary channel for disseminating news to the public is the independent media. The fact that it is independent makes it trustworthy.

Within that frame of reference, military doctrine based on lessons learned defines public affairs philosophy and practice. It guides commanders and public affairs officers (PAOs) on how they should treat information they collect and pass on to both the public and soldiers. Opposing forces or adversaries might lie or disinform, but the American military must speak only the truth. Information, whether complimentary or embarrassing, is freely passed through internal channels and given to the news media for public dissemination within the constraints of military security and public law. Generally four doctrinal concepts guide U.S. military public affairs practice:
" The public's right to know;
" Maximum disclosure with minimum delay;
" Information must come from a trusted source; and
" Internal news comes from the commander first.

The Public's Right to Know.

A free press is the lifeblood of a democracy. The constitution in a democracy such as the United States provides for public access to information about the military as well as any other government agency. It also guarantees the right of the press to report on news free from coercion or censorship. Without it, news can be manipulated to serve various interests, including those that would harm to the nation. On the other hand, a free press does not guarantee fair or accurate reporting. But in a free society, with a free marketplace of ideas and information, it is up to the public to decide what to believe. As an agency of the government sworn to defend the nation and the constitution, the military is required to abide by the public's right to information about what its government is doing.

Operating under these circumstances is not easy. It means having to admit bad news as well as tell the good - as the U.S. Navy had to do when one of its submarines rammed a Japanese fishing boat earlier this year. It means competing with many other voices. It means sometimes having to correct rumors. It means that your own soldiers will learn things about the institution outside of proprietary channels. Above all, it means making an effort to communicate with the community you serve, as well as with the soldiers you employ. Since the main channel of communication with the public is through the media, public affairs officers must often act as brokers to help reporters obtain timely, accurate information.

Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay.

It should be armed forces policy to make available timely and accurate information so the people may know the facts about their national defense. This is one of the lessons that came out of the Vietnam experience. Information should come on a timely basis from the armed forces themselves. If it comes from another source first, it may not always be complete or truthful. In fact, considerable time and resources may be spent trying to correct it. Such attempts to 'catch up' are never as convincing as getting the story out quickly and accurately from the start.

Information should not be restricted to avoid criticism or hide bad decisions as it was when senior Marine officers withheld data on the operational readiness of the V-22 Osprey aircraft. Military commands should release bad news as quickly as possible. Like stale bread, it never gets better with age - especially if it looks like there was a 'cover-up.' Any commander or public affairs officer who attempts to manipulate news or restrict access to embarrassing information can expect even more negative publicity for himself, his command, and the armed forces.

On the other hand, there are times when information must be restricted. This is done when its release would harm the security of an important operation, or threaten the safety of personnel. Another reason would be to protect the privacy of men and women serving in the armed forces. For example, when accidents occur, no names are released to the media until family members have been notified.

Besides the public, the troops themselves should have equal access to information-from within the military and from general news sources. Troops serving overseas or in isolated locations are especially vulnerable to rumors. The less information they receive, the less they feel integrated into the overall mission. For that reason, U.S. military commands operating overseas take extraordinary measures to keep soldiers informed with unit newspapers, closed circuit broadcasting systems, and frequent briefings and feedback sessions with commanders.

Information Must Come from a Trusted Source. Information coming from a trusted, competent, and respected source is more likely to be believed than rumor. Normally, only two people are authorized to release information to the public and the media on behalf of the institution. They are the commander and the public affairs officer (PAO). PAOs may also call upon staff experts to answer media inquiries, provide input to internal information products, or grant interviews. PAOs may allow reporters to directly question troops regarding their role in specific operations, such as a helicopter pilot making a daring rescue or troops returning from a peacekeeping mission.

In practice, the public affairs officer usually acts as spokesman for routine information. The reason is that the PAO works with the public and the media on a daily basis, is familiar with their concerns, and is usually skilled in insuring that disseminated information is honest, accurate, and screened for material that, if released, might harm national security or invade the privacy of a servicemember. Commanders are more likely to be held in reserve for more important information. Their infrequent appearances often lend more weight to whatever needs to be said.

Internal News Comes from the Commander First.

When an important change occurs-such as a deployment or a base closing-soldiers want to hear the news from their commander first. They will begin to distrust the service and their commanders if they continually hear of such developments through gossip or the commercial media. Think about it: if a soldier is about to be deployed overseas for three months, the worst place to find out is on the radio or the front pages of a daily newspaper. That is why U.S. commanders try to keep their troops informed, so there will be no question that they are part of the team.

Supporting the four concepts mentioned above, are additional guidelines that cover both combat and peacetime activities.

First, public affairs is a continuous process. When a public affairs officer provides favorable news on military activities, he or she makes a deposit in what one might call a public 'good will account.' When a crisis or disaster occurs, public understanding and support is maintained temporarily by drawing on such good will - by reminding the public of what it already knows about the institution and how it serves the people. An organization that does not do this may have a harder time when disaster strikes. With no reserve of favorable opinion about itself, the organization faces public scrutiny in debt, because it is linked only to the negative information involved with the disaster and must go to extraordinary lengths to reverse the impression.

Second, public affairs is a function of command. The success or failure of public affairs efforts depends on the active involvement of the commander. Commanders must include public affairs in operational and contingency planning and keep their public affairs officers informed.

Third, public affairs speaks with one voice. One of the basic reasons for communicating in the first place is to keep unorganized and conflicting information from informing the public and the troops. Conflicting statements of fact show lack of control, cause confusion, and diminish public confidence. Some reporters covering the Pentagon used to ask one general a routine policy question, then go knock on another general's door and ask the same thing in a slightly altered fashion. When the second general answered with a different response, the next day's headline would invariably read: 'Generals Disagree Over Pentagon Policy.' Today, one of the PAO's duties is to publish press releases on all military policies to reduce the likelyhood of this kind of misunderstanding and disseminate guidance to all personnel who might come in contact with journalists.

Public Affairs Organization and Function

Public affairs offices have a specific place in U.S. military hierarchies and carry out well-defined missions. Normally U.S. military public affairs officers work directly for their commanders so the two can keep each other informed. The higher the rank of the commander or the more important the unit, the more likely the PAO will be hand-picked. Usually the PAO is the same grade or perhaps one grade inferior to the commander. If there is too much of a spread, it is unlikely the two will share much rapport and the relationship may be remote.

Headquarters-level military public affairs offices are usually organized into four divisions, each with a dedicated staff: public information, internal information, community relations, and news analysis and planning. The largest division is usually the public information staff. Its job is to inform domestic and foreign publics through the civilian news media. At headquarters or command levels, the director usually holds the rank of colonel. Typical activities include:
- Planning and coordinating media coverage of broadest range of operations possible;
- Responding to queries from journalists;
- Providing guidance about what to say on current news topics for commanders and PAOs.
- Initiating the release of stories, photos, and videos; and
- Supporting visiting journalists during field and overseas deployments.

Internal information communicates with soldiers, their families, and civilians working for the military. With the advent of the internet, some military organizations have combined both public and internal information staffs since many of the same products and services serve both audiences. However, in a large organization, communicating with the troops is hard enough work without trying to deal with the general public at the same time. Internal information should be a separate priority, especially during mobilizations, deployments, responses to disasters, and any other circumstances requiring large-scale, short-notice operations. During these times, soldiers and families need as much information as possible to keep uncertainty, anxiety, and the effects of gossip to a minimum. Typical internal information products include, bulletin boards, newspapers, websites, fact sheets, letters outlining commanders' policies, on-base broadcast outlets, special briefings, and feedback sessions.

Community relations promotes contact with neighbors and community leaders in areas of military operations. Community relations divisions help increase public awareness of armed forces missions, encourage good relations between the military and communities, and build the military's reputation as a good neighbor. Community relations audiences include local citizens, government officials, business leaders, church, civic, and school organizations. Typical activities might include:

- Base open house tours and displays;
- Participation in parades and national holiday ceremonies;
- Sponsorship of youth groups such as Scouts;
- Making facilities available to certain civic organizations such as volunteer groups;
- Providing luncheon speakers for such organizations as Rotary on topics concerning specific missions or activities that might interest the public;
- Presentation of awards for community service to military members; and
- Presentation of awards to civilians for their support of local military units.

Finally, the analysis and planning division collects information on both external and internal public opinion and targets messages to audience interests. Analysis and planning provides the compass for the entire public affairs mission. It analyzes the communications environment and provides guidance for public affairs efforts. It investigates communications problems and suggests solutions, usually in the form of public affairs programs. It tracks public and internal opinion through clippings, news content analysis, and public opinion polls to keep the commander advised of external and internal concerns. It recommends themes for public affairs programs, based on current public opinion. And it studies previous activities in order to improve public affairs efforts.

Together, all four divisions complement each other providing an integral picture of an organization dedicated to public service, transparent operation, and good citizenship. In simple terms, it is like selling soap. If the product is good and you advertise it enough, over time the mere mention of its name or appearance of its symbols will inspire confidence. But unlike detergent which is merely sold in a store, an institution belongs to the public. Managing its reputation is a more complex and daily task that requires commanders and personnel to actively associate the organization with the interests and concerns of its owners - the taxpaying public.

Public Affairs in Latin American Armed Forces

As outlined in the introduction, Latin American military institutions have developed in a different historic and cultural setting than those of the United States. Unlike the U.S. military, the mission of most Latin American armed forces has been to maintain internal order and sometimes defend a particular political regime. Although this is becoming less common as the armed forces are increasingly being divorced from police duties and placed under civilian defense ministers. While U.S. soldiers are viewed as citizens first in the volunteer spirit that inspired the first militiamen during the American Revolution, Latin American military traditionally have considered themselves a society apart, living behind a wall of silence and self-sufficiency.

As the structure and placement of these institutions takes on the semblance of those of industrialized nations like the United States, Latin American military leaders are finding it necessary to break down their walls to communicate with civilian policymakers, legislators, and ordinary citizens in order to obtain money from the national budget and permission to conduct major operations. Unlike the days when the military either was the government or served an authoritarian leader, today's armies must defend their existence, often without the necessary tools or experience.

Is the garrulous, communitarian style and functional form of U.S. public affairs appropriate and workable for Latin American armies? A senior Bolivian Army officer once remarked during a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored public affairs seminar in La Paz, 'Everything that has been suggested by your [public affairs] doctrine is totally opposite to our way of doing things. But, I don't see how we are going to survive if we don't open ourselves to public scrutiny.' Obviously, there is little time for something similar to a 400-year old tradition of public town meetings, contract law, and open debate to take root and transform Latin America overnight. However, necessity can be the mother of invention.

For open and proactive types of public affairs programs to be successful in Latin America, two attitudinal changes are necessary. First, military personnel must stop handling all information as if it was jewelry to be locked up in a safe and horded. Instead, it should be treated like fresh bread that only does good when it is shared and consumed on a daily basis. The second change is to identify the institution with ordinary citizens and their interests. The military should not be a society apart, but one that works alongside citizens it protects.

A modification in where public affairs is placed in the Latin American military hierarchy would also help. Some armed forces regard public communication as a minor, even ceremonial function and assign PAOs to staffs outside of the operational loop. There are examples of public affairs offices reporting to protocol, or working out of civic action directorates, or even operating as a unit within military intelligence. None of these locations is appropriate. Commanders at headquarters and major unit levels must have public affairs officers assigned directly to them if they are to be of any use.

Finally, successful public affairs programs have taken hold where armies have increased their contact with the press and public. For years, the Brazilian Defense Ministry has run its own defense information school which even offers courses to civilian public relations practitioners and journalists. In El Salvador, active public affairs has resulted in favorable coverage of search and rescue missions, training programs, and exercises. Inviting reporters and legislators to visit the site of a joint U.S.-Salvadoran engineering exercise helped quell press stories and rumors that foreign troops were visiting to dump toxic chemicals and spread AIDS. When the Uruguayan Air Force reorganized its public affairs program in the mid-1990s, its director began holding annual journalist roundtables and even invited the nation's most anti-government newspaper to do a feature on how it trains its pilots. The resulting two-page spread read like a love story. In 1996, the Uruguayan Air Force went on to establish a public affairs training seminar in its command and staff school which it also opened to members of the army and navy.


Like any other government institution, the armed forces are a national asset. In democracies like the United States, they must account for their actions and identify with the public interest. The only way for them to do that is to communicate. And the only way for their messages to have resonance is if they inform on a regular and frequent basis. This may not follow the previous traditions of restricting information Latin American armies may be more comfortable with. But governments and societies throughout the hemisphere have begun a profound transformation in which citizens are becoming more educated and are demanding rights to exercise control over the institutions that once controlled them. In order for professional armed forces to remain relevant, they must demonstrate that they have a necessary function by rendering accounts, taking credit for the many good things they do, and by inspiring trust.

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