06 August 2007

Military muzzled

I'll take a guess why the military said nothing about the shooting of children in Afghanistan: the government told it not to.

This is a prime example of the military being manipulated by the government. It's a dangerous area to be dabbling in.

The government "spin" machine controls everything its faithful officers do and say. They, in turn, are advised by public servants (all schooled by the government at Defence-sponsored PR courses). Never mind PR supposedly being about honesty and transparency. I guess they don't teach that one at the government school.

The bearer of the bad news, Brigadier Nickolic, has just come into the "top" PR job, probably without any formal journalism or communications qualifications. I'll bet he's never even written a media release but but that he's been through the standard government "how to handle tricky questions" course.

Most of the people in that position are former Special Forces commanders who are being prepped for higher duties. The previous spokesman, Brig Peter "Gus" Gould was a former SAS commander. They stay about 12 months and move on.

In the years I've been in Defence PR, both in (Army) uniform and as a public servant, it's become obvious that since Tampa and the Children Overboard cases, the military has not been at liberty to conduct its own PR affairs.

As a senior PR Officer, I could not contact the media directly without telling the media office in Canberra. I was not allowed to distribute media releases. Never mind that I had worked on metropolitan dailies for 17 years. It seemed I could not be trusted. The politicians had to know everything that might occur.

Just before I resigned, John Howard's office put out a message to commanders, asking them what events or activities they had coming up that he might be able to appear at. If that's not using the military for political purposes, what is?

The bottom line is the Hoawrd government is so afraid something might damage its reputation. ("It [the control] will to get worse before the election," was the comment to me by a senior uniformed officer a few months ago). They do it across all departments.

Yet despite all the resources it pumps into PR, the government's reputation is still lousy. So why bother with the layers of media advisers? Let the military get on with being pro-active in its PR stance. I'd also hope one of those brave military spokesmen would have the courage to tell the government what it should do with its spin. Trouble is they wouldn't get a medal.

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The PR Lab is a consultancy, specialising on research, reputation management, social media, media relations and the development of measurable strategies that produce results. It is run by Dr Greg Smith, a former journalist and PR professional. Greg worked on daily newspapers in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. He held senior PR positions in the Australian Defence Force, Sydney Olympics and national not-for-profits. He has also lectured in PR at Edith Cowan University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.