Military PR: From Vietnam to Today

Posted At: December 2, 2009 12:26 PM
by Jessica Boyd

Many people have compared the current war in Iraq to the Vietnam War. Like Vietnam, the Iraq War is an undeclared war that has grown increasingly unpopular in recent months and has lasted longer than most people expected.

According to the Historian article “Unsell the War: Vietnam and Antiwar Advertising” by Mitchell Hall, the Vietnam War was marked with scandal as the United States military was accused of using propaganda to “sell” the war to the American people. During the war, the Department of Defense fed the national press carefully selected information, oftentimes not representative of the true nature of the conflict. The Army prepared more than two million press releases a year, keeping the American people at arm’s length away from the conflict. Additionally, military television crews would often supplement network news coverage with combat footage that was staged.

In this new millennium, however, the American people are no longer left in the dark when it comes to the Army. The public affairs division of the Army has adopted the phrase, “Maximum disclosure, minimum delay” to describe its public relations philosophy. As a public affairs officer at Red Star Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., Kim Henry believes it is the Army’s duty to let the taxpayers know where their money is going. She said, “Public affairs officers are the face and voice for the Army because we are the official spokespersons.”

Frederick P. Wellman, a former chief of public relations in Iraq and a retired veteran, agrees. He said, “The military public affairs officer stands between the two worlds of openness and confidentiality and is constantly engaged in the balancing act between their duty to share information and protect their fellow service members.” Wellman admits there is a constant tension between the need to be open with the public and the need to keep our Army’s operations and soldiers safe. In order to maintain this balance between the two worlds, public affairs officers must follow strict guidelines and policies set forth by the government.

As a current public affairs officer for the Army, Henry said her duties are different every day. Public affairs officers must be able to be versatile and adapt well to change as every day brings new responsibilities. These officers must write press releases, handle the media and serve as the conduit between the Army and the American people, as well as a host of other responsibilities.

According to both Wellman and Henry, the main goal of the public affairs division is to inform the public, which is done in several ways. The public affairs division of the Army is broken down into three tenets: media relations, community relations and command information. Media relations involves working with the press to disseminate information, and community relations involves promoting events to raise Army awareness within the national and local community. Command information refers to any communication the public affairs office has with its service members, employees and families of service members.

The public affairs division of the Army continues to progress away from the days of Vietnam to maintain a high level of openness with the public. Its officers still sends press releases to the national press, but the Army has also begun to imbed reporters in the Iraq War, giving the press and American people an in-depth look at our troops. According to Henry, this process allows reporters to be trained and imbedded in different units in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving the reporters a firsthand look at the status of combat situations and the American public an objective view of the conflict.

Perhaps an even more dramatic change in the Army’s public affairs department is the adoption of social media to communicate with the public. Wellman said the Army has even created a new division in the public affairs office, the Online Social Media Division, to oversee the Army and its members’ use of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and different blogging sites. “This has allowed us a whole new menu of ways to tell our story directly to the public,” Wellman said.

The Army’s social media Web site offers links to official Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube pages of Army units around the world. The Army regularly posts updates to its own Twitter page, offering the public a chance to connect with the Army and receive updates about its soldiers serving stateside and overseas. Henry said, “Public affairs has done a great job of harnessing social networking for public relations purposes and convincing the national government to use social media.”

However, the Army must still maintain certain boundaries when dealing with social networking sites. Only a few months ago, Army bases were forced to ban their soldiers from using social networking sites to prevent sensitive information from being leaked to the Internet. In June, the Army lifted this ban and now allows soldiers to interact with the American people through social media. However, the Army was initially against the use of social media sites due to the dangers associated with information falling into the enemy’s hands, according to Henry. Now, the Army’s Web site features a blog, and it even includes information on how to replicate the Army’s personal branding for individual Army unit’s Web sites.

The Army has made significant strides since the days of subterfuge during the Vietnam War and continues to live by its motto of communicating quickly and openly with the public. The job of public affairs officers, however, is complicated because they must balance the ability of instant communication with the safety of that communication for the people who serve and the nation they protect. Their efforts have been noted and appreciated as we continue to support our troops.

Photo ed. by Niki Gautier

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