Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Knew It Was Gonna Happen

When soon to be retired Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal and some of his staff were quoted speaking "out of turn" in Rolling Stone Magazine and he was later forced to resign his position as top general in Afghanistan, you just knew there was going to be a crack-down on military officers talking to the media.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, it was the wrong thing to do.

General McChrystal's mistake -- and he made a big one -- was not in talking to the Rolling Stone reporter, it was his naivete and carelessness while talking to the reporter.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates would have been well advised to use McChrystal's experience as a "teaching moment" for all U.S. military officers already authorized, and hopefully trained, to deal with the media. The Army's embarrassment is also an excellent teaching-moment for corporate executives.

Don't avoid talking to the media. Look for every opportunity to tell your story, and do it according to "plan." Leave the jargon and "off-the-cuff" remarks back in the office. There is no place for such stuff in any conversation with a reporter -- on or off the record.

In the late-60's, I was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Wing Information Office and we worked for a one-star and then a two-star general. We looked for opportunities for the "boss" to talk to the media, but he was never left alone with a reporter. Just like later in my career I worked for a U.S. Senator and later another government official and there was always a staff person present when the "boss" met the press.

CEO's can learn from General McChrystal's experience and avoid the same mistakes.

And, stay sober when in the presence of the media and other publics.

Secretary Gates was not completely wrong in his attempt to "control" media encounters. It appears he just went a step too far in his directive.

Both in the military and the corporate world, persons at every level of an organization should be identified and trained as potential spokespersons. They should have limits on what subjects and details they are authorized to talk publicly about. They should always advise someone up the chain of command when they have a media encounter.

But, with few exceptions, including during a significant crisis, they should not have to go all the way to corporate headquarters or the Pentagon before they do an interview that falls within the parameters I just outlined above. If you can't trust a person to follow the guidelines, then they should NOT be authorized to speak to the media to begin with.

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