Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Get the military a media plan


Northern army commander, Lt Gen Sanjiv Chhachra (Image: courtesy Xinhua)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Nov 13

The world’s fourth most powerful military worries that negative media coverage is eroding its image. For decades after 1947, even through the humiliating rout by the Chinese in 1962, India’s press placed the military on a pedestal. Foreign correspondents who rode into Dhaka with the Indian military in 1971 described our jawans fondly, even admiringly. This is no longer so. Now everyone is fair game for a brash, iconoclastic new breed of journalists and news organisations that operate in real time on digital media platforms. This is evident from the on-going feeding frenzy around one of the media’s own --- a newsmagazine editor who faces accusations of rape.

The military community, both serving and retired, finds it hard to deal with this new environment. In forum after forum where I meet the military, officers bitterly criticise what they call an anti-national media and an ungrateful nation. They point to numerous poorly sourced news articles critical of the military to dismiss even legitimate criticism.

Critics of the military reject this prickliness with the jibe that the services are stuck in a time warp and must understand that they too are subject to scrutiny. But that would be short sighted because self-esteem is a crucial driver that induces soldiers, sailors and airmen to function in professional situations where death is a real possibility. If militaries were compensated monetarily for the risks they encounter, employee costs would be unaffordable. The respect that a military is accorded, therefore, should be viewed as cost-free remuneration that drives soldiers to do what they do.

One winter morning in the early 1980s, I was a young lieutenant motorcycling down from Ferozepur to Delhi for a weekend of leave. With my shiny new Yezdi (yes, there was once a mobike called that!) stalled by a tyre puncture, I was admiring the mustard crop in the fields around me when a passing farmer saw my uniform and stopped his tractor. He loaded my Yezdi on his trailer and took me to a tyre repair shop in Moga, the nearest town, waving aside my offer to pay him. The tyre-shop owner peremptorily told his other customers to wait, fetched me a steaming glass of milk, repaired my tyre and had me back on the road in 20 minutes. There was no question of payment --- it was only a puncture, he said. This public regard kept us functioning as soldiers, not the princely Rs 790/- that I was drawing each month.

Yet, the defence services are not beyond criticism, nor can the military justifiably dismiss all criticism as anti-national. So sensitive has the military become that the top brass even allege that the military’s image is being deliberately smeared by inimical journalists acting at the behest of bureaucrats, civil society and politicians.

The truth is that the military knows very little about the world of journalism and has no plan in place to learn more. It has no filters to distinguish one news report from another --- credible from amateurish, one that needs rebuttal from one that should be ignored. Instead of a careful evaluation of reportage, what comes to the fore is an unstoppable urge --- rooted perhaps in military training --- to respond, and respond now. Even as officers respond to a news report with reflexive denials and inadequately crosschecked “facts”, the digitisation of the communications space permits others inside the organisation to pass on contradictory narratives. A senior television journalist who specialises in this tit-for-tat says that 70 per cent of the calls that he receives contradicting army statements come from the rank and file, not from officers.

Nor does the army know when to be silent. In the recent intrusions in Keran, J&K, top generals appeared repeatedly before the media, promising a swift end to the operations. With no end in sight the conspiracy theories began, terming the intrusion “another Kargil”. Why did the army set deadlines when a simple statement could have sufficed --- that the army has the situation under control and would brief the media when operations were concluded?

This readiness to comment on on-going operations is matched by an inexplicable need to cloak administrative matters in secrecy. Instead of letting journalists file “exclusives” and “exposes” on issues like rape by military men, there must be a website where administrative statistics are freely available? The generals seem unwilling to admit that 1.6 million soldiers, sailors and airmen represent a slice of society that will reflect the trends and ailments of the broader society they are drawn from.

The military operates in the harshest of environments. Things will inevitably go wrong, and the military must realise that suppressing the truth is neither feasible nor desirable from a professional standpoint. Misrepresenting or denying a bungle may seem convenient, but this engenders a dangerous culture of tolerance in an organisation where news of a cover up can hardly be suppressed. Like other vibrant organisations, the military must have the confidence to acknowledge mistakes and institute measures to remedy them.

With survey after survey underlining that the military remains India’s most respected organisation in the eyes of the public, the generals must have the confidence to step back and unhurriedly prepare a media plan. In 2003-04, the army set up a new department to interface with the media --- the Army Liaison Cell. The ALC must now be manned by specialists, officers who have worked as journalists, who can conduct daily briefings, put mistakes and even debacles in perspective, and release harmless information that continues to be treated as secret. 

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very well written article..we still consider Army as a premiere and a selfless organisation.
Army does not need PR imaging or brand ambassadors...!! The images of soldiers in Siachin Glacier, Kargil War or relief efforts in Uttrakhand speak immensely of an institution which this country is extremely proud off!

Anonymous said...

TwnlA doctors profession is considered noble as it saves lives.. soldiering is even nobler as a soldier sacrifices his life to save other lives! Mumbai Taj attack and the gallant actions of men in uniform made us all proud.Media cannot be tutored by professionals as the citizens can easily identify what is genuine and what is printed or shown for effect

The SAISA said...

How to destroy an Army http://saisaonline.org/analysis/how-to-destroy-an-army/

Rohit Agarwal said...

You have to invent a thousand lies to justify a lie, or if you want to obfuscate. If you strictly stick to the truth, then maybe there would be very little need for media 'management'.
And where you are not in a position to come out with the truth, maybe it's better not to comment at all.
Incidentally, the Tehelka-Tejpal episode indicates that the media itself is not very good at media management.

Anonymous said...

tehelka... tejpal... shoma... what goes around... comes around... factually... an assault is an assault... no misjudgment... can't hide... accusation plank...

Shikhar said...

..a point amply made, when we see out own Army Commander, with a photo credit to Xinhua.

Yogi said...

Media Plan for the Army(applicable to all but more so to Generals) :
1. Stop whining!
2. Stopping pining!
3. Remember that there are no free lunches! More so with media. There will always be quid-pro-quo. So thing 10 times before `using' media or any one else!
4. Do your work well.
5. Take care of your command. They will speak well of you.
be happy and xxxx the world.

Anonymous said...

Recommended reading for all defence top brass: Munitions of the Mind. A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day by Philip M. Taylor.

Anonymous said...

That cuts both ways. Journalists poorly equipped for the defence beat including ex-armed forces-types trying to project non-existent expertise are able to get away with shoddy reporting as well under the current dispensation.

saffronbandit said...

Interaction with the press/public has always been the Army's achilles heel.Just by appointing a couple of PRO's around the country has not solved either the public's need for information nor helped build a favourable public image for the army.

Kargil,Sukhna,VK Singh,Keran .... the list is endless of the Army shooting itself in the foot and coming across as just plainly hamfisted.

Even take a look at the ADGPI Facebook page -just mostly pics of the COAS'S activity - what a colossal waste of an opportunity of being present on the worlds most used social media platform.

Apart from a media plan which you mention, there has to be more focus on training the officer corps in media interactions -this must start early from the Y/O's course ,thru to the DSSC and the NDC. Definitely something that the GOC ARTRAC needs to prime move on an urgent basis. Use resources from the private sector. See how the US /UK armies handle the media -learn from them.

Anonymous said...

as if to illustrate your point, the image credit is from Xinhua...talk about irony.

Anonymous said...

The three services always want to learn the harder way.Professionalism is clearly lacking..When r they going to get themselves to twitter, facebook and other social media for effective communication..recently@adgpi has joined twitter...thats just the beginning

Hari Sud (M.S., B. Sc., P Eng.) said...

You really wish to extricate Army, Air Force and Navy from bad press & media then stop senior army officers from joining the arms suppliers. They bribe to get the job done hence become discussion point for the electronic media. There should be total ban on anybody Brigadier and above joining private service without consent.

The young captains and majors have to grow up and mature. They are responsible for two known cases of altercation and fights with the Jawans in recent months. It is total immaturity.

The senior officers should be sent to school for learning art of propaganda and media management. A person of the rank of Lt. General was founding wanting both militarily and diplomatically during the J & K incrusion in Keran sector.

A number of very senior officer of the rank of Lt. General were founding wanting in admin skills. One General Pal during 1999 LOC crisis out of bad faith gave a poor rating to deserving general because he did not like him. The courts had to set things right. In my opinion the offending senior officer should have his pension docked for this offence.

Army became the but end of the joke during General Singh's age crisis. Two previous COAS conspired to have General Singh removed in order to promote their own "good boy". I will not let General Singh off lightly because he was also behaved miserably.

All those corruption cases right up to army chief, air force chief, navy chief are not sitting well with the public.

With ammunition provided by the military services themselves to the media you would expect media to sensationalise it. The latter is an Indian speciality i.e. make mountain of the mole hill and likes of Arnab Goswami to shout at himself and the bunch he collects to talk about issues right on the TV. He is not competent to talk on most matters but he is master in sensationalism.

Hence services have to change themselves and grow up.

Ravi said...

I predict this sensible, down-to-earth article will make the military's head explode. The idea that you have a media policy in a democrarcy is totally alien to military.

Just my opinion: we ask too little of the generals when it comes to war; they give us little. Generals will say country nevery gives them the means to victory. Perhaps. But good generals deliver results on what they have in hand, not what they wish they had.

RD said...

In today's 'information age' media plays a very important role and can change any geo-political equations. Today a media has the ability to topple a govt. or can make a villain a hero and vice versa. With increasing number of news broadcasters and media of all forms it has made the matter much confusing. Sadly, the defence forces are shown in bad light by certain sections of media just for trps or USPs. So it is highly recommended to have a separate media section of the military.

Ghorcharrah Gabbar said...

... Contd

Bizarrely, the Army's Military Operations Directorate issues and executes a media-based strategy on Perception Management that 'leaks' or ghost-writes pro-military media stories using surrogate authors and sources. Such implanted stories serve pro-Establishment opinion-shaping efforts. Most retired officers who appear on panel discussions on TV news-media are often coached or even briefed (and maybe paid) to convey the Army's aseptic point of view in issues concerning military matters. So deep-seated is the official apathy and suspicion against news-media that even media agencies officially-appointed to convey official themes suffer distortion and mutilation at the hands of ham-handed Army officials.

The current media strategy of the Army in particular appears to be one of 'speak aloud, talk at length, dress to kill, vocabularise like the Yanks BUT convey nothing' !!

Western armies employ their best minds for intelligence and perception management functions. The concept of embedded journalism and journalists was a far-sighted initiative by the Americans at conveying the righteousness of their operations and the courage under fire of the servicemen so employed. The National Geographic documentary movie 'Restrepo' chronicled the activities of a US Army platoon on a 15-month deployment in the Korangal Valley of northeast Afghanistan and nearly won an Oscar in 2010; the HBO documentary 'The Battle for Marjah' covering the activities of a US Marines Company in Operation Moshtarak was received to critical acclaim. We not only can't do something similar but botch up whatever few opportunities we get. I cannot get over the smiling visage of General Vig in the picturisation of the Indian National Anthem; why did he have to be there ? The efforts of our troops during rescue and relief in Uttarkhand received unanimous public praise and media attention. What was missing was an official media jockey to inject self-imposed modesty while articulating the military standpoint on various nuances of the effort so as to convey the professionalism involved, handout photos, disseminate stories of endearing human interest. Instead one needs to see the Central Command web site http://suryahopes.in to see how bad can an amateurish effort get.

I don't see things improving at all. The Army is already caught inextricably in a downward spiral of professional drought, ethical decay and moral vacuum. The media has already smelled blood - the military is imploding under the weight of its decadent ways and offers breaking news galore of sins big and small.