In June 1970, the Marine Corps Gazette published the text of a talk, “Effective Press Relations,” given to students at the Command and Staff College earlier that year by legendary USIA officer Barry Zorthian. As Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Saigon from 1964 to 1968, he set up the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO).
It would be easy, he said to the Marines, “for us to have a nice bull session criticizing the nature of the press and then leave early for the club feeling that we’ve put in a good day’s work.” However, “there’s not much mileage to be gained,” he counseled, and in the article, he vigorously defended the press and its role. Rather, “I want to focus in particular on the performance of the military services and the Foreign Service in the context of Vietnam.”
Embassy information officers, public affairs officers in the State Department’s bureaus, and ambassadors will still find Zorthian’s comments worth reviewing. Here are a few bulleted quotes:
- . . . it’s still possible today for an individual to become an ambassador or a general without ever having developed a sense for press relations, public affairs or communicating, and without ever really having had any training in it. . . . One of the tasks facing Uncle Sam is the development of a press doctrine. It should be as much a part of the training of career officers as tactics in the military case and as political reporting in the case of foreign service.
- . . .If we can start off on the basis of these few points, there are a few principles (or commandments, as I like to call them) that should be observed in dealing with the press and in becoming more effective in communicating.
- . . . in today’s world a degree of sophistication, or candor, is necessary. . . . In the mood of our society today, the “establishment,” the institution, is under question and is being analyzed, and in the proper spirit, this is a healthy process. A gap between words and fact–a reliance on rhetoric–is simply not adequate for this kind of a situation. I think that too often on the government side our approach to the press has been disingenuous; if not deceptive, at least misleading. This is not right in principle. You simply cannot get away with a gap between reality and your articulation of it.
- I’ve had a very, very knowledgeable ambassador tell me that the trouble with the Foreign Service is that it thinks it has to win all the press issues. It has to hit 100 percent, and if it doesn’t it’s very disappointed. Again, it is the type of thing that’s hard to measure. But if you do better than 50 percent, you’re doing well; and if you’re getting 60 to 70 percent on your side, just count your blessings and let it go at that. The mood, the tone, the skepticism of the day almost ensures that you’re going to lose a few. What a public affairs officer can do and what you do with his help and staff counsel is perhaps blunt the harm in a damaging story, making it less bad than it might be otherwise.
- Let me suggest, also, that a very sharp distinction be drawn between information and publicity. A post newspaper, an instrument of command, is essentially publicity. … One of the headaches we used to face in Vietnam was that too many of our press officers, both military and civilian, had been plucked out of post PAO jobs where they had been involved really only in publicity (they knew the story they were writing was going to get into that post newspaper) and plunked down in the middle of the hottest, most controversial, most complex story in the world today and asked to do a real information job, a press job. . . . . When you hear the press criticizing the pap, the propaganda, the government releases, what they’re really criticizing most often is the government’s efforts at publicity.
- Here is a list of a few ground rules that I referred to earlier as “commandments”: No lying to the press. * * * * * Restrict security to an absolute minimum. * * * * * Establish ground rules in dealing with the press clearly and without any misunderstandings. Be clear and then be firm on whatever the ground rules are. * * * * * You must take the initiative.
Read the full text here.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.