McChrystal and The Year of Bad Public Relations

June 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

General Stanley McChrystalIn my last post, I deemed 2010 “the year of bad public relations.” Not profound or poetic, but sadly accurate. The latest proof: General Stanley McChrystal, recently ousted from his Afghanistan command due to comments by him and his staff in a Rolling Stone article entitled “The Runaway General.”

Last September, I blogged about Gen. McChrystal and his “Commander’s Initial Assessment,” praising the plan’s communications component. At that point, Gen. McChrystal was demonstrating a grasp of media and message since dissolved with his military career.

The Washington Post reports the conclusion among Pentagon officials that Rolling Stone “betrayed” Gen. McChrystal by printing off-the-record remarks. The low drone you’re now hearing is not the vuvuzela section at the World Cup; it’s the groaning chorus of PR professionals. NOTHING is off-the-record (my old boss Susan Tellem is particularly good at making this point with clients–woe if you don’t heed her). That does not mean there aren’t journalists who abide by the “off-the-record” request. It means you can’t count on the protection. It means never say anything you don’t want converted into global content.

This is not a call for “no comment,” tight scripting, puff pieces or similar banes of good public relations. It’s a reminder that common sense is the foundation of any PR action. Common sense would question a Rolling Stone exclusive with the General, given its historic anti-establishment bent (this is the publication that gave Goldman Sachs its now iconic “vampire squid” description). Again, I’m not advocating puff pieces with staunchly sympathetic media, but the pitfalls of this choice should have been obvious.

Duncan Boothby, Gen. McChrystal’s civilian press aide, was the first to fall on his sword when the story–and the story about the story–broke. His counsel to the General before greenlighting the interview should have been:

  • Which key audiences are we reaching with this media? Are there other/superior media options to reach these audiences?
  • What messages will we convey with this media?
  • How will the eventual piece support our communication objectives and overall strategic goals?

And of course the $64 question:

  • What’s the worst that can happen?

Perhaps Mr. Boothby went through the above protocol. Perhaps the conclusions were solid for proceeding with Rolling Stone. Perhaps the problem was solely in execution, a lack of common sense from the General and his staff. The reports are damning of the officers’ prolonged, alcohol-fueled sessions with journalist Michael Hastings. There is nothing a public relations professional can do in such cases. Even if he/she could eject the media and lock the liquor cabinet, the damage would be irreversible.

In the end, this is a severe personal failure by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, particularly disappointing considering his past communications competency. When untested and largely unknown leaders stagger in the spotlight–BP’s Tony Hayward and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein chief among them–we can cite their ignorance and indifference regarding public relations. Gen. McChrystal had no such excuse, which is why he had no choice but to resign. Leadership does not give you the right to say whatever you want. It only increases the weight of your words.


Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Media, Public Affairs, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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