Courage Under Fire; Speaking Up in the Military

You have to admire people who speak up. Anywhere, anytime. Stand on your hind legs and speak your mind.

Part of our role as communications and crisis counsel to our clients is to tell them things they don’t want to hear, and to get them to listen to people inside and outside their organization who are saying things they don’t want to hear. That’s hard to do.

So here’s a profile in courage: Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. He was interviewed on National Public Radio Friday and has written a piece in Armed Forces Journal, called “A Failure in Generalship,” about how the military has failed in Iraq. His most powerful point — the military didn’t give the American public and civilian policymakers accurate information about how hard invading Iraq would be and how difficult it would be to stay there after the invasion and do what the administration said it wanted to do.

Yingling’s beef with the institution he’s given his career to is not that it didn’t fight well, but it didn’t inform honestly. Communication. Counsel. Speaking truth to power. They didn’t do enough of it.

Yingling is speaking up within the military, an institution that punishes those who don’t fall in line. Criticizing your service publicly is a violation of the code of military justice — and an act of courage and public service. If we had more people inside the military with the courage to speak up — and Yingling should have spoken up long ago — we might not be neck deep in the big muddy, as Pete Seeger sang about Vietnam.

Yingling says the military — and he blames the generals, but includes himself among those who let the institution fail — didn’t prepare for the war, didn’t take their own warnings about how hard the war would be and how many troops would be needed, didn’t learn the lessons from Vietnam about fighting an insurgency, and didn’t report honestly how badly things were going in Iraq.

The biggest problem, from a communications standpoint, was not speaking truth to power. “To prevail,” Yingling writes, “generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy.”

Instead of saying you’re not giving us the tools and troops we need, most generals said yes boss we can do ya.

And once we were knee deep in the big muddy? “After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public,” Yingling writes. The military underreported the violence and underestimated the continuing difficulties. But rose-colored glasses don’t stop IED shrapnel.

Now — telling the Bush administration something it doesn’t want to hear is like trying to make a river flow upstream. Ask General Eric Shinseki, who said we needed more troops going in, or General John Abizaid, who said more troops in a “surge” wouldn’t do the trick — both were hustled into retirement for not joining in the groupthink. George Bush plays the tune that his courtiers dance to — criticism is unpatriotic. Get with the program, don’t focus on the negative.

David Halberstam warned us decades ago about the fatal danger of fooling ourselves. Although George Bush is unusually stubborn and averse to challenge, most people in positions of power are tough to stand up to. Which makes standing all the more valuable.

One more quote from Yingling: “While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame the recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of the generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.”

Ankle deep. Knee deep. Hip deep. Neck deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on — Seeger. Those doing the slogging — and directing the slogging — need to speak up.  Yingling has. With courage. He probably doesn’t have much future in this president’s army, but look for him in the Obama or Clinton or Dodd administration.

Here’s the full article:

— Bruce Benidt

And Now For Something Completely Different…

OK, I’ve been too busy with the other parts of my life to post anything lately, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.

I do.  I think about you every 7 seconds.

No, wait…that’s sex.  I think about you alot though.

Never in the context of those sexual thoughts though…that would be just weird for many of you and probably worse for a few.

Except for Tony.  I feel oddly warm whenever I think about him…

But I digress.  The point is that I really, truly, do care about you, the dedicated participants of our growing network and I feel bad that I haven’t been holding up my end of the conversation.

I want to do better; dammit, I will do better.

To prove it, here’s the funniest thing I’ve seen lately.

Except for Tony.

– Jon Austin

You Go To Hell, I’m Going to Florida

When Tennessee voters didn’t return David Crockett to the US Congress in 1836, Crockett said to his former neighbors, “You go to hell, I’m going to Texas.” Texans, proud of almost everything, sell T-shirts and bumper stickers with that phrase all over the state, including near the Alamo, where Crockett’s career ended.

Bill Cooper, former TCF Bank mogul and former state Republican chairman, has up and moved to Florida, according to Neal St. Anthony in the Star Tribune. “I reject feeding this dysfunctional beast,” Cooper is quoted as saying about Minnesota government. So he’s taking his Scrooge McDuck money bags and going to Florida, where a no-income-tax government won’t bother him for contributions for silly things like schools and roads.

Cooper’s done some good things for Minnesota. And Minnesota, as he acknowledged in the story, has been good to him. Well over $100 million good. Top executives who raid their customers and the low-paid workers at the bottom of their organization to gobble up huge rewards from Wall Street always seem to have a problem forking much of that money over to people who live on bus passes and grocery coupons. If people were worth their salt, they’d make millions just like Bill did, the philosophy seems to go.

So Bill calls Minnesota government dysfunctional. And it has become that, as the Republican program to transfer wealth from those who don’t have much to those who have way more than they need has taken hold here. Cops? Libraries? Roads? Schools? Wealthy Minnesotans don’t pay as large a share of their income to support those quaint things as do middle-class Minnesotans, and yet it’s the wealthy who are whining and mewling about taxes. The Minnesota House votes to make the wealthy pony up their fair share, and Republicans declare it’s the End of Days and bleat that all the wealthy (read “good”) people will go to Florida.

Let them.

The rest of us will plug along here, pay our taxes and see if we can get Minnesota back to being a state that works.

Enjoy Florida, Bill. I went to college there, I spend part of the winter in Key West, and I love the state, what’s left of it. But live there? No thanks. Florida has a government as responsive as a corpse, a legislature that’s sold to the highest bidder (often Big Sugar, which bought the legislature so it could drain the Everglades), tattered schools and a voting system that’s the envy of African dictators. If that’s the kind of state where you want to live, Bill, take your Minnesota money and count it down there. Florida government’s got a long way to climb to reach “dysfunctional.”

— Bruce Benidt

One of the Best & Brightest Who Got It Right

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, I heard David Halberstam speak at the Minnesota Press Club in downtown Minneapolis. He spoke about the Middle East, and said he was researching a book about oil. He wanted to tell how America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and our inability to conserve was making us contort our foreign policy around our need for energy. This was before the first Gulf War. Before Saudis flew jets into the World Trade Center. Before the disaster a Wyoming and a Texas oil man have created in Iraq.

I was so eager to read that book, but Halberstam never wrote it. And now he never will. He died Monday in a car crash on the way to a college lecture in California. David Halberstam was one of the best journalists in American history, and he made me proud to be a reporter, when I was, and he’s part of why I think journalism is a virtuous profession and central to our freedom.

His work sets a standard not many reach. Are David Halberstam and the brainless crap most journalists cover part of the same world? Yeah, the world of the free press — free to be idiotic, irresponsible, and wickedly accurate. 

Halberstam showed, in The Best and the Brightest, why we can’t just leave it to government to tell us how well things are going. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that The Best and the Brightest — about U.S. government lies and journalists digging for truth early in the Vietnam War — is essential reading for anyone who…well, for anyone. What if you had a failing war that was ruining our global standing, and the administration running the war called its critics unpatriotic and said reporters just weren’t showing what was working over there? To understand what’s going on in Washington and Iraq today, read The Best and the Brightest.

The title of this, his most famous book, was ironic, and the phrase is still used with unconscious irony to describe a bunch of smart folks. Halberstam’s book recounts John Kennedy assembling the best and brightest minds in the country and still these people, including later under Lyndon Johnson, screwed things up, misunderstanding the Third World, mistaking nationalism for Communism and learning the wrong lessons from history. When the best and the brightest get it wrong, no wonder the political hacks and K Street sluts make such a mess.

Halberstam was distracted from the oil issue by cars. His next book after I heard him was The Reckoning, in 1986. He showed how the Ford Taurus was the only creative thing Detroit had come up with in years, while the Japanese auto industry was taking fuel efficiency seriously and making cars that fit the new world, not the old world of the 1950s. Detroit withered, Japan prospered, and, long before Tom Friedman, there was Halberstam making the global marketplace clear and understandable.

This man didn’t sit on his ass. He won a Pulitzer in 1964 for his reporting from Vietnam — when he would hitch rides with grunt soldiers to get out in the countryside to see the real war while most other reporters took in the official military briefings back in Saigon. Look how many reporters now just sit around and repeat what official sources tell them. Journalism? That ain’t journalism.

William Faulkner said “The past isn’t prologue; it isn’t even past.” Halberstam understood that the past isn’t dead history — it’s part of how things continue to unfold today. Want to understand GenXers’ desire for meaning in their work and lives? Read The Children, Halberstam’s recent book about young people who drove the day-to-day, slow-but-steady progress of the Civil Rights Movement, where a young Halberstam did some of his early reporting.

I loved reading David Halberstam, and listening to him comment on current events. He was insightful, smart, amused and amusing. He’d always look below the surface, and always find a story about human lives that illustrated what was really going on.

We’ll hear his voice one more time this fall, when a new book comes out, about the Korean War. I know it will shed light on today, and I’ll be grateful for the chance to hear, once more, from this bright man.

“For all of the difficulties, I am somewhat optimistic about the future,” Halberstam said. “In my lifetime I have seen the resiliency of American democracy…What I’ve come to admire is the muscularity and flexibility of this society. What I trust is its common sense.”

– Bruce Benidt

Who Are You?

For readers who work in or with public relations, I have a question for you. A local agency’s recent declaration that it is no longer a public relation agency raises the question The Who’s Pete Townshend posed in 1978: Who are you?

Are you an “integrated consumer marketer,” as the agency formerly known as “Fast Horse public relations” proclaimed? Are you a reputation manager, or a brand manager? Are you just a good old-fashioned public relations gal or guy? Or are you a Prince-esque glyph? Who, who, who, who?

And what’s this renaming all about? Just an industry refreshing its image with new wordsmithing, or the sign of fundamental change in the industry?

Admittedly, I’m a dinosaur (see obscure Pete Townshend reference). But to me the business hasn’t changed enough to merit a trip to the thesaurus. Whether you’re delivering messages through news stories, trade publications, various types of ads, events, street marketing, websites, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, clogs, or next month’s on-line fad…its still just about persuading people.

Yes, I know the media landscape has changed. People are not consuming nearly as much mainstream media as they used to. They are getting their information from a long and ever-changing list of sources. The gatekeepers of information have changed, and in some media have evaporated. People face a bewildering amount of information clutter, and therefore messages need to be more brief, provocative, personal and engaging to get noticed and remembered. Yada, yada. We all give or view the same PowerPoint presentation.

And I find this has changed my job, in relatively superficial ways. These days, I find myself delivering messages through Facebook, YouTube, sidewalk chalking, street marketing crews, point-of-decision prompts (don’t ask), and other “new media.” And every time I do it, I pat myself on the back and feel oh so “bleeding edge.”

But, really, my job hasn’t changed that much.

I still face the same basic task of aligning the right message and media with the right audiences. As my media toolbox has gotten larger, it strikes me that my job has changed tactically, but not strategically.

Or am I missing something? And if I am missing something, what is the best new name for the industry formerly known as PR. Who are you?

— Joe Loveland

Par for the course

For some of the best — and most disturbing — local writing to be found these days, follow this link:

 This should take you to a PDF copy of the lawsuit filed by the Pioneer Press April 12 against The Star Tribune, Newspaper of the Western Milky Way and Leveraged Buyout Mistress of Avista Capital Partners, LP.  It represents the opening salvo in the battle over Par Ridder’s thoughtful decision to remain on Interstate 94 on his way to work from Sunfish Lake, exiting on 5th Street in Minneapolis rather than 7th Street in St. Paul, thereby leaving his job as publisher of the PP to take the comparable position at the Strib.

Now of course, kiddies, we all learned in school that a lawsuit is a “claim,” and not to be believed as fact.  It’s one side of the story.  To be sure.  But if just a fraction of the allegations laid out in a compelling narrative — drafted by one Dan Oberdorfer, former Strib-reporter-turned-lawyer — that is both detailed and genuinely disturbing, are true, then what we have here is a real corker. 

In short, the suit describes a series of actions by a spoiled little MBA rich kid who decided to turn his back on 75 years of history and loyalty to both a newspaper and a company — the Pioneer Press and Knight-Ridder, respectively — and to trot across the River to that company’s arch-competitor, taking with him a mountain of highly sensitive information, the substance of which is enough to blow a competitive hole in the side of the PP the size of the USS Cole.  And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that there appears to have been some sort of inconvenient “non-compete” agreement that Mr. Ridder (whose name Channel 9 news amusingly pronounced as “Rider,” as in Easy Rider) either inappropriately removed from the premises of the Pioneer Press, mischaracterized as being null and void, or both.  Oh, and did we mention that Par also persuaded two critically important PP executives to join him?

Perhaps most disturbing in all this is the very real possibility that The Star Trombone’s best and brightest executives gleefully accepted all this information, with Par “Easy” Ridder firing off one email after another bristling with attachments of spreadsheets, reports and other goodies — machine gun belts of business amunition for the Strib to fire against its cross-town rival.  This, in an industry whose stock-in-trade every so often lights upon such subjects as credibility, accountability and, ah, ethical behavior, is utterly amazing.

To read the Strib’s coverage of the issue is to witness one of those VERY CAREFULLY edited bodies of reportage that characterizes the dispute in the most antiseptic of terms. (Those of you who haven’t been on “the light side” — versus the dark side of PR — should be aware that any story that even mentions The Mothership is given extremely careful treatment, frequently being read and edited by the Editor-In-Chief, the company’s lawyers and any number of other Poobahs — consideration usually reserved only for BFD Superprojects.) 

We would also invite you to visit the Strib’s web site and to search for “Ridder,” whereupon one will be rewarded with 79 hits.  One of those headlines, dated April 17, 2007, reads:  “Star Tribune Union Seeks Inquiry of Allegations Against Publisher.”  Interestingly, a click on that particular headline results in an Error 404.  “We’re Sorry.  The page you requested could not be found. It may have been moved; more likely it has been removed from our servers. Most articles are automatically purged from’s free news database after three weeks.”  Hmm.  Let’s see.  Today’s April 18th, I think. . .

Not that any of you care, but for some demented reason (maybe it’s because my family just visited my profligate artist son, who is studying for a semester in Florence, Italy), I’ve been reading Dante’s Inferno.  I would note the following:  Dante reserves his lowest and most horrifying level of hell, Judecca (for Judas), the innermost region of the Ninth Circle, for those who commit treachery against their benefactors.  One would assume that those who receive the fruits of that treachery are somewhere in close proximity. 

— Tony Carideo

On Message, Off Humanity

How about we put another PR sacred cow on the butcher block? Key message repetition and bridging.

For years, the Gospel according to PR has been to counsel clients to develop key messages and bring every answer back to those key messages.

So, let’s say you determine through highly scientific methods (i.e. a few dozen interminable meetings with insider apologists) that your key message is “our widgets make customers’ lives better.” Brilliant!

Now, your friendly neighborhood PRster advises, make sure you always, always, always bridge back to that key message, even when being asked about other things, such as the weather, your tie, or that pesky report showing that your widgets are maiming people. And then you get videotaped and shamed until you do it like a trained seal. For this you pay several thousand dollars.

So, for example, when I Googled “staying on message” today, I got this sage advice from one of our brethren: “Staying on message is simply a matter of “grabbing the wheel” of an interview and steering it across the bridge. You “bridge” the interview from the question you don’t want to answer to the answer you want to give.” Some people less sophisticated in the mystical ways of PR refer to this as “deceit.”

So, remember dear old Mike Dukakis repeating “good jobs at good wages” 27 times in interviews about foreign policy. That actually was not Turret’s Syndrome. He was “on-message!”

For a long time, this avoid-and-bridge technique has been an article of faith in politics. If they ask about the cash hidden in the freezer, just keep going back to better schools for the children. As you’ll see from congressional approval ratings, this is working extremely well, so corporate barons adapted the technique.

Look, I support having key messages and bridging back to them. It is true, airtime and column inches are extremely limited commodities, so you must be planful and strategic about budgeting your words. I get that. Repeating a message does clearly communicate your message priority and increases the odds that your key message will survive the edit.

That’s a fine theory to guide us. But let’s get real. In practice, a lot of people out there are doing themselves more harm than good by applying this approach too robotically.

I probably shouldn’t give out this highly proprietary qualitative research, but here is a key insight I gained from straying outside my swanky PR suite and applying sophisticated anthropological observational methods on real humans in their natural environment.

Get this, it seems real humans in real conversations typically answer each other’s questions, and don’t instead repeat irrelevant phrases like a malfunctioning android. Therefore, I raise the question whether our counsel that clients avoid and repeat until the audience sinks into the fetal position is compatible with species norms.

When PR people see someone repeating messages on MSNBC , they invariably say “that’s awesome, they’re staying on-message.” Meanwhile, according to my anthropological research, most non-PR people are thinking, “that unfeeling robot is so guilty that he refuses to even answer the question.”

Again, before I get banned from all future PRSA merrymaking, please understand that I’m not arguing that we abandon our precious key messages and bridging. We can keep our binky, okay?

I’m just arguing that we temper our training. I’m arguing that we prepare clients to deliver key messages AND answer the inevitable tough questions directly, not deliver messages INSTEAD OF answering questions directly. I’m arguing that we advise clients to bridge to key messages whenever it’s natural, not whenever it’s possible. I’m arguing that we take more care to make sure our client’s humanity and honesty is spotlighted in the interview, not camouflaged with cookie cutter communications.

Now, you ask, have I personally ever over-trained a client so they inadvertently came off like a Model B-9 Environmental-Control Robot? Well, that’s an interesting question, dear reader, but the real issue here is that our widgets make our customers’ lives better!

— Joe Loveland