Military and the new media

The Indian military and its leadership is struggling to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the conventional media. Is the media a friend (as in Kargil) or is it a fiend (as in Panag versus Army Chief or other corruption cases)? The question hasn’t been answered credibly so far; the confused institutional responses by the Indian military betray the absence of any coherent strategy on the vexed subject.

The US military leaders, on the other hand, are harping on harnessing the “new media” — blogs, youtube videos and social networking sites. Although this is in contravention to the official Pentagon policy on the subject.

Lt. General William Caldwell is the former top military spokesman in Iraq and commanded the 82nd Airborne Division earlier. He is now the Commanding General of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the command that oversees the Command and General Staff College and 17 other schools, centres, and training programs located throughout the United States.

General Caldwell in his post on the Small Wars Journal says that perception is often as important as the traditional conflict in the modern war and ordinary soldiers have to be encouraged and prepared to wage this information war. This means they should “get onto blogs and send their YouTube videos to their friends and family.”

First, we need to Encourage Soldiers to “tell/share their story”. Across America, there is a widely held perception that media coverage of the War in Iraq is overwhelmingly negative. We need to be careful to NOT blame the news media for this. The public has a voracious appetite for the sensational, the graphic and the shocking. We all have a difficult time taking our eyes off the train wreck in progress – it is human nature. Walter Cronkite once said “If it’s extraordinary, and it affects us deeply, it’s news.” Knowing this, we, as a military, owe it to the public to actively seek out and engage the media with our stories in order to provide them with a fuller perspective of the situation. When Soldiers do this, the media is very open and receptive.

Just playing lip service to encouraging Soldiers is not enough. Leaders need to not only encourage but also Empower subordinates. A critical component of empowering is underwriting honest mistakes and failure. Soldiers are encouraged to take the initiative and calculated risk in the operational battlefield because we understand the importance of maintaining the offensive. However, once we move into the informational domain, we have a tendency to be zero defect and risk averse. Leaders have to understand and accept that not all media interactions are going to go well. Leaders need to assume risk in the information domain and allow subordinates the leeway to make mistakes. Unfortunately, the culture is such that the first time a subordinate makes a mistake in dealing with the media and gets punished for it, it will be the last time ANYONE in that organization takes a risk and engages with the media.

Hand in hand with encouragement and empowerment is Education. If Soldiers are better educated to deal with new media and its effects, they will feel more empowered and be encouraged to act. We need to educate Soldiers on how to deal with the media and how their actions can have strategic implications. They need to know what the second and third order effects of their actions are. I believe that most people want to do a good job. There are very few Soldiers out there who would intentionally harm the mission or intentionally do something to reflect poorly on their unit or the Army. When many of these incidents occur, and we have all seen them, it is because they just don’t know that it is going to have that kind of effect and cause that kind of damage.

Finally, we need to Equip Soldiers to engage the new media. If we educate them and encourage them, we need to trust them enough to give them the tools to properly tell/share their stories.

In its new report, the task force on strategic communication of the Defense Science Board, a high-level Pentagon advisory panel has diagnosed the problem as “to make good news as entertaining as bad news”.

I am certain someone in the Indian military will read the report and ask for another organization to study and coordinate “strategic communication” by the Indian Armed forces. They can then easily add to the plethora of two-star and three-star ranks heading the rapidly proliferating directorates in the service headquarters. The Indian Army is the only one in the world that has a three-star General as the head of the Remount and Veterinary Corps (the one dealing with horses, mules and dogs). One wonders that if Napoleon and his train of four-legged animals didn’t need a General a couple of centuries ago, is there a need for the same in twenty-first century Indian Army? The answer was provided by the former Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash while castigating the Indian army for having “all Chiefs and No Indians“.

As far as the media is concerned, the issue of convincing people to like the Indian military is not a matter of simply crafting the right messages. While more effective strategic communication is a worthy goal, it is the actual implications of policy choices for how the country perceives the Indian Army, Navy and the Air force. The media can only respond to these policy actions. Are the three services ready to make these pathbreaking policy changes?

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One Response to Military and the new media

  1. XYZ February 3, 2008 at 9:01 pm #

    Meaningful outcome of outsourcing the study and coordination of strategic communication can be successful ONLY if it is supported by progressive policies and change in the mindset of the top brass. If not, the effort will only generate some catchy slogans for use by the media for commercial purposes. Top Brass – “Do you have it in you”?

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