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McChrystal, Guns and Rock n’ Roll: A Cautionary Tale of Off-the-Cuff and On-the-Record

When your mission is on the line there is no such thing as “off-the-record,” and “deep background” can be nothing more than a description of the harmonies on a Beach Boys album. If you want to play with leaks and don’t think you’ll get wet, hand in your gold stars and go to plumbing school. Never try to cover something up, because eventually it always gets discovered by someone far more hungry than you are, and then you’ve lost the trust. And most importantly, remember to professionally respect journalists, as they are here to do a job just as you are here to do yours, and if you lose sight of that respect then their career may rocket to success by sinking yours to the Mariana Trench.

A Public Affairs officer should have asked Gen. Stanley McChrystal to put down the Bud Light Lime for a moment to hear this sage advice for any military commander – of course more respectfully stated such as “may I recommend you respect journalists, Sir” – however as we know now this did not occur. How could such a capable, inspiring, though inherently flawed commander fall hook, line and sinker for the old journalistic honey trap that lead to a career-ending Rolling Stone interview that (undoubtedly accurately) portrayed the team leading U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan as characters from the “Charlie Don’t Surf” scene in Apocalypse Now?

The answer raises some interesting issues in larger open government discussion, so grab your surf board and let’s patrol.

For disclosure, I should mention that back around 7 years ago while a young Air Force Public Affairs officer I had the privilege of being one of the first wave of specialists to participate in Army Ranger School for the purpose of preparing soldiers for the “Contemporary Operating Environment,” or in this case, embedded journalists. During the final phase of training when the troops had lost most of their formerly rugged body weight through forced rationing of food, when their minds were stretched to the limit through fatigue and the most extreme sleep deprivation, and while in this condition participating in a full-on operational simulation where passed out teammates had to be slung over shoulders and carried as suicide bombers rushed at them through the woods, it was here that I would arrive with a warm smile and pocket full of M&Ms. It was here that I would teach the lesson McChrystal somehow forgot.

I would present myself sometimes as a journalist from the Boston Globe, or whatever home town paper I inferred belonged to the soldier in command, and would waste no time in sharing stories of home to homesick guys, bonding to minds and spirits no longer in touch with the outside world by promising glowing profiles in newspapers, sneaking candy to starving stomachs as we flew to the next simulated war zone in helicopters (and for the record, most did not take it based on principle). As they let their guard down I would be granted greater access to conversations, closer proximity to overhear operation planning drawn out in the mud with sticks, and then inevitably I would start exploiting the living the hell out of them. I ferreted details of the mission plan to Army Ranger instructors to mess with, I increasingly defied the guidelines set out by the commander in order to gain greater access, and when all was said and done at the end of each embed I either found myself assigned a guard to keep me still or the soldier in command failed to do his job.

Later it would be revealed that I was in fact a Public Affairs officer, which wouldn’t have been difficult for the non-sleep deprived mind to gather, and that the lesson was that in the Contemporary Operating Environment you will have to work with embedded journalists, and often it would be difficult to differentiate between when it was on-the-record business or off-the-record sharing with a friend. But ultimately, just like they were there to do a job, so too was the reporter, and just as the safety of the mission was dependent on embedded journalists respecting the guidelines set by soldiers, the mission is also dependent on soldiers respecting the purpose of the embedded journalists.

How romantic is it that this basic lesson was discarded like yesterday’s news one evening in Paris, where by all accounts the wine (or Bud Light Lime) flowed easily, aides danced jigs like little sailor boys dancing on bar tops singing for their rum ration, and a publication more astute at covering the exploits of Justin Bieber landed a searing expose that took down the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

So where did McChrystal go wrong, as we cannot just write this affair off as feigned ignorance of the Contemporary Operating Environment – which if you haven’t guess was military jargon for “reality.” Was he trying to sink his command of what he determined to be a hopeless cause? Given that he normally only eats one meal a day, could a proper drink have taken him one toke over the line? Did Colonel Mustard do it in the kitchen with the lead pipe? I don’t speculate, I look at the facts, and here they are:

Where the ‘Blessed Mother of Pulitzer Prizes’ Was the Public Affairs Officer?

Patton famously said he was a soldier, not a politician, but I’m not certain if that was before or after he was relieved of command for shooting his mouth off. Either way he was right: just like politicians themselves, business leaders and any other person of operational responsibility, military commanders have a professional staff to internally advise on, and sometimes protect, the message of the operation from leaders who may be focused on the success of the mission more than how it translates into sound bytes. And no where is the role more important than in government, particularly the military, as the uniforms and protocol create a dehumanizing effect that make men and women of public service fair game to scape goat, compromise, and otherwise provide a spring board for well-intentioned journalists who grew up watching All the King’s Men and see cover-ups behind every clean-shaven face.

Some in the Open Government conversation have portrayed Public Affairs offices as roadblocks to accountability, and that if only PAOs were replaced with a Twitter feed and blog for every public servant then transparency would be achieved. This opinion is usually the mark of someone who has never worked in government. PAO’s direct inquiries to the proper subject matter experts whenever possible, but the problem is that often they are not brought into the decision making process until its too late in the game (which should sound familiar to fellow communicators in the corporate setting).

So where was McChrystal’s Public Affairs officer, as the Rolling Stone article does not mention his or her existence. Only three possibilities exist:

a) As often happens, the Public Affairs officer was not regarded as “inner circle” and therefor not present one romantic evening in Paris to set professional guidelines that were instead winged by an overconfident operations officer.

b) The Public Affairs officer’s perspective was warped into something irresponsibly similar to Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, the effect of living under the umbrella of a powerful leader and mission, knowing full well you walk the path of history (aka the Kool-Aid drinker).

c) The Public Affairs officer was present, but marginalized.

Whether A, B, or C I assure you the Public Affairs officer no longer has that job, and if this were back in the day, would be assigned to a wooden chair in the middle of an abandoned airplane hanger until his or her service concluded. Had the PAO fulfilled their duty correctly or been allowed to none of this would have occurred, but as McChrystal already had a record of pulling a Patton with out-of-line remarks when challenging the White House on troops levels, its more likely that his command style is one that marginalized the existence of a competent liaison.

In short, whether the Public Affairs officer was present or not, he or she was not there in the capacity of a Public Affairs officer.

“Off-the-Record” in Government is like Rainbows and North Korean Democratic Elections: Illusion

Once we’ve established that a competent Public Affairs officer was not on-the-clock for a job that requires round-the-clock dedication, we look to McChrystal’s staff itself; most likely highly competent operational officers and senior enlisted who may not specialize in media relations but for goodness sake have been around long enough to know what is expected professionally of men and women in uniform. For this Rolling Stone expose to be written, every basic expectation these leaders would hold their lowest ranking troop accountable for had to be tossed out the window like any class earned by a world traveler whose favorite beer is Bud Light Lime.

It almost makes no sense. Almost, were it not for an oft misunderstood concept called “off-the-record.” Off-the-record conversation is a courtesy that is realistically extended to whistle blowers and people of power whom the journalist does not want to risk their access to. And its application in this situation demonstrates a complete lack of perspective from McChrystal’s staff as to which side of the coin they are on.

Every Public Affairs officer knows that messaging resonates better when it is presented in a sincere voice, even if that voice is less polished than one would expect of a spokesman like the bubbles and imperfections in a hand blown glass sculpture that give proof to its authenticity. Rolling Stone has a rebel journalist image, and McChrystal’s staff thought to give it what it wanted – a personality and bravado straight out the military movies we admire, a persona that is often more inspiring and gritty than even fiction portrays.

The more particular details of the comments wouldn’t be conveyed because they are off-the-record, except for perhaps the admission that McChrystal actually voted for Obama because that should endear his rebel image to the progressive cause, but all in all the landscape was established: we’re American bad asses who speak the truth and are getting things done.

General McChrystal, as you now have been reminded, off-the-record is not for you. Off-the-record is for dishing dirt on military commanders not for military commanders to dish dirt on themselves, which is essentially burying themselves alive. True, many public leaders enjoy the privilege of being able to speak off-the-record after briefings with the New York Times or Wall Street Journal because it is in the interest of these publications to respect the relationship they have with that leader.

When you are a military general in combat talking with a correspondent who would love to make their name in a serious article blowing the lid off a scandal rather than facing a lifetime of articles written about what shit Lady Gaga is wearing this week, this is not the time to use off-the-record because its doesn’t matter to that journalist if he ever talks to you again.

You’ll be sitting at home wondering where the pieces fell while he has been catapulted to new career heights. This is why Public Affairs officers tell their commanders that when it comes down to it there is no such thing as off-the-record, and all words and actions should be considered accountable.

A Cautionary Tale Indeed

So what does this unfortunate case mean for the larger debate on #gov20, open government, transparency and all these concepts we speak of?

I feel that the expectation of public engagement in government bureaucracy is like the internal debate between capitalism and socialism. Either direction in extreme does not work practically, but the best function lies somewhere in between with the balance adjusted and readjusted based on the mission and the environment – the most important lever being the context in which access is provided.

The Obama Administration certainly understands this all too well, as unfettered transparency has now made Afghanistan an even less sought after summer vacation destination this year.

As more government leaders and bureaucrats leverage tools like social media to engage with the public, we must all ask why is we seek this, and whether the mission dictates use of the tool, or a philosophy dictates the use of the tool above the success of the mission.

I envision, for instance, an innovated political process that utilizes services like Twitter for issue advocacy and education campaigns to improve the quality of voters and decision-makers rather than existing to play political gotcha with the off-the-cuff remarks that arm chair quarterbacks seek. But I suppose that desire for Gov 2.0 is what separates those who are in and around government for the public service from those lured by the intrigue, the concept that our actions and innovations exist to lift public service up rather than to simply bring it down to ground level.

But these may be philosophical points best discussed over a cold Bud Light Lime, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this case.

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Justin Herman

Thanks Mr. Govloop. And yes, who does indeed drink Bud Light Lime, the poor man’s Corona? Hell, its one step from having a Moxie drinker on our hands, but at least they have character.

Bowen Moran

Great post. Part of the problem with this whole issue is the reality of gotcha journalism. While I appreciate your cautionary tale, I loathe that it’s needed. Patton may have been relieved of his command for being a jerk, but his attitude may have helped him take the risks that paid off in defeating the Nazis. I’m all for not slagging the boss publicly during times of war. Frankly, as a public servant I believe I serve at the pleasure of the elected executive. That means that I need to be clear that I’m supportive of the official. If I don’t agree with the direction that we’re going in, I need to voice that opinion to my boss. If he doesn’t agree and I can’t live with it, maybe I should resign instead?

Justin Herman

Thanks, and spot on with your comments Bowen – camera ready personalities don’t always make for good commanders. I’d rather have a leader who was effective rather than smooth.

And whatever PAO assigned to him failed because if McChrystal needed extra care to stay publicly on the straight and narrow, then that was that person’s duty to go the extra distance.

Either way, now we look in retrospect as an already dire situation becomes more so, and hope to apply this lesson to further cases (cough, BP, cough).

Either or, you watch these things unfold and think – where was the thought process here?

Justin Herman

You raise some great questions, Savi, and that’s what I was hoping for.

Are we defining transparency as access to data, access to decision-makers, or both, and is either or necessary to improving government engagement and accountability? I say data yes, access to decision-makers less so functionally (though the perception of this is indeed important)

Christina Morrison

Justin — Great post. I just cannot accept that a General McChrystal made a “mistake”. He’s a strategist by profession – mistakes don’t just happen because you had too many Bud Light Limes. I believe there was a thought process that has not been reviled just yet.

Either way – it sure makes interesting conversation over some Coronas (leave the Bud Light Limes at home)

Justin Herman

I know, Christina, I know – something is not right. This mistake is just too amazing, too text book.

I halfway expect him to be announced as a Fox News contributor next week, but that would be a disgrace to his service. He doesn’t seem the book writing type either, but heck if Tommy Franks can do it then anyone can.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

Fascinating and insightful, Justin. Thanks for posting and giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the factors involved in this story.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Excellent stuff, Justin. Wow.

My take on McChrystal – tired of a war that can’t be won, he doesn’t want history to see him as the final loser. So rather than be the guy at the helm who must declare that we’ve lost and be the one walking out with hat in hand, it’s better to exit now and let someone else be “that guy” – which, I think, gets to your comment about it being a bit more calculated rather than clumsy.

Or he liked Gary Faulkner’s approach and plans to come back as a Bin Laden Hunter a la Boba Fett.

Justin Herman

Thanks Andrew and Jay,

You’re on to something Andrew – not to say its certain, but this is all just a little too much to write it off as a simple lapse in judgment. Something is rotten in Denmark.

Greg Salvatore

When this story broke last week, the first thing I thought was: I’d love to know Justin’s opinion. So I was pleased to read this. Thanks for posting.

And yes, I believe you’re right on with the concept of ‘off the record’. Understand that a beat writer is always going to accept (though sometimes grudgingly) an off-the-record demand because he needs to know he can pick up the phone and call you the next time a story breaks. Not true, ever, in the case of a feature reporter. It’s absolutely the job of the Public Affairs Officer and McChrystal to know where that interview is headed. You don’t get on the plane and then yell, “Save me Jebus!” when you find out where it’s going.

This comes up in my environment often — obviously not with the ramifications of national defense or with any similar degree of confidentiality — where comments are made that aren’t simply ignorant themselves, just ignorant of the circumstances, ignorant of the writer’s intentions. And as you say, understand that writer is there to do a job. Respect that.

Justin Herman

Greg, baby, you know it the most.

Something I’ve loved about all of these comments are that each person seems to be addressing different angles of the issue, which is needed because issues like this have no simple answers, no one angle that can be defined narrowly.