Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Strategic Influence

The Army has hired a Detroit PR firm called Hass MS&L to provide "editorial content" to pro-military bloggers. Presumably, this'll be very attractive to those bloggers who worry that their subjectivity or incapacity sometimes prevents them from being an effective rubberstamp for the Pentagon.

William Arkin explains:

[T]he "content" under discussion, an Army public affairs officer tells me, is not the nitty gritty of deployments and living conditions overseas. It is planned to be an official counter to the perceived unwillingness of the mainstream media to report the "good news" from Iraq and the war on terror.
The logical problem here is that a piece of good news - say, a school re-opening in a Baghdad neighborhood - has much less emotional resonance with the American public than an explosion that kills ten U.S. soldiers. The bad news out of Iraq is always going to trump the good news...partially because the public simply doesn't care as much about Iraqi lives as it does about American ones, and partially because narratives of death and destruction resonate very deeply with a population that's been scared out of its wits for political convenience. Every time U.S. soliders die, a number of previously supportive Americans entertain the notion that the war might not be worthwhile; I'm not sure you can open enough schools or hold enough elections to overcome that process.

Hass MS&L's expertise is in PR for the American automotive industry; this, as Arkin notes, doesn't inspire confidence. For instance, the firm is behind GM's corporate blog, which is an indispensible site for those who want to explore the brighter side of dead-end thinking and looming bankruptcy. GM's logic - like BushCo's - is typical of failing corporations: "Why whistle past the graveyard, when you can hire a brass band and a choir?"

I'd suggest that the Army is taking a bit of a risk here. It's inviting considerable scrutiny of its PR message, particularly by soldiers and their families, which could have unforeseen consequences for morale. The situation, I think, is similar to that which compromised so many of BushCo's PR efforts in Iraq; you can talk all you want about "progress" and "freedom," but if the people on the receiving end of your pep talks don't have water or heat or jobs, they're going to be hostile to your message...more hostile, possibly, than if you'd kept your mouth shut.

By the same token, propaganda targeted at the military has to include honest acknowledgment of the problems soldiers face, and the realities of life in a war zone, or it'll be ineffective. The pamphlet What is Propaganda?, published in 1944 by the U.S. Armed Forces Institute, makes this point clearly:
One must be careful to distinguish between the opinion that propaganda creates and the opinion that is developed by events....a man's own knowledge and experience may cause him to hold an opinion no matter how heavy the barrage of propaganda attempting to force him to change it.
The Bush administration has put a great deal of faith in the ability of words to create reality, and there's no doubt they've had some remarkable successes in that line. But now, they've reached a point of diminishing returns. The taxpayer money that'll be squandered on promoting the "good news" from Iraq on blogs would be better spent by paying Iraqi workers to reconstruct Iraq:
More than thirty months after the March 2003 invasion, Iraqis still complain of a lack of basic amenities like heating oil, water, and electricity.
Until problems like these are solved, perceptions will continue to be shaped more by events than by press releases, or bought-out journalists, or co-opted blogs, or speeches by the President.


Oberon said...

........eschew obfuscation.

Phila said...

........bite me.