PR for Soldiers

Stop any U.S. soldier in Iraq these days and he's likely to recite: 'We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all.'
As the U.S. military approaches nearly two years in the Iraq conflict, media training for soldiers going into the war zone has been stepped up, becoming mandatory for Army troops since October, E&P has learned.

"Talking point" cards for military personnel, meanwhile, are being updated regularly as the war progresses – often as much as once a week – to keep up with the conflict's changing issues and the proximity of embedded reporters. Among the current talking points: "We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all."

Soldiers preparing for deployment in hostile or critical areas have received some kind of media training in handling press inquiries since as far back as the first Persian Gulf War, according to several military press officers. Such training has also included pocket cards with suggested talking points for the combatants, which advise them how best to promote the military operation and avoid awkward or confrontational interviews.

"As situations happen, you will have ever-changing talking points, as much as every week," said Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine Corps public-affairs spokesman. "They are tailored to the situation."

The media training consists of one or two hours of briefings by public-affairs specialists from the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. In the past, such training was provided only to those Army units who requested it, according to Sgt. Don Dees, an Army spokesman based at the Baghdad press center. But, since October, it has become a mandatory requirement for all deploying Army troops.

"The Army just recently made it a common soldier task; it is one of the requirements they go through," Dees said. "It is in our best interest to provide them that training."

While the Marine Corps has made such training a requirement for years, it has taken on more importance in recent months as well. "There is more heightened awareness with this particular conflict," Capt. Landis told E&P, referring to the Iraq operation. "It has taken a higher priority."

During training, soldiers are urged to speak with the press as a way of promoting the positive elements of the operation, but not to lie or speak about issues with which they are not familiar.

"It is a standard part of deployment preparation," said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon.

Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Department of Defense spokesman, compared it to any other basic training. "It is a common task, much like firing your rifle," he said. "It has emerged over the past 10 years as a necessary skill."

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., noted this week that the first talking point in a slide show for troops at Fort Bragg was: "We are not an occupying force."

A list of "wallet-card" talking points given to a group of Marines heading to Iraq, obtained by that newspaper, included:

  • The Marine Corps is trained, resourced, and ready to accomplish its missions. We are committed to the cause and will remain in Iraq as long as we are needed.
  • The fight in Iraq is tough, but we will remain steadfast and not lose heart.
  • We are moving forward together with the Iraqi government as partners in building a future for the sons and daughters of Iraq.
  • Coalition forces will help our Iraqi partners as they build their new and independent country and take their rightful place in the world community.
  • Our troopers and their families are our greatest and most treasured resource.
  • The Corps is a national institution it has never failed to do the will of the American people.

In media training, meanwhile, soldiers are advised not to discuss classified information, to confine comments to their area of knowledge, and to stay on the record. Other advice includes talking to the interviewer, not the camera; avoiding acronyms, profanity, or a "no comment"; and not arguing or answering a question they do not want to answer.

But not everyone is supportive of the military's media preparation. Sig Christenson, president of Military Reporters and Editors, said most of the advice is good common sense, but he said some of the talking points could lead soldiers to misrepresent the situation or even lie.

Christenson, a military-affairs writer at the San Antonio Express-News, cited the talking point about the military units being "trained, resourced, and ready." "What if it is untrue?" he asked, pointing to the recent questioning of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by a soldier about a lack of armored protection for vehicles. "If that isn't the truth, they should make it clear that the soldiers and Marines should say so."

He also objected to having soldiers always provide a positive outlook. "If they are being told to find a way to talk about the positive, they are not talking about facts," Christenson said. He also called the suggestion to avoid acronyms or profanity "public-relations silliness."

Capt. Landis responded to such criticism by defending the promotion of positive aspect, but stressing that no one was being asked to lie. "These are not for use for propaganda means," he told E&P. "They are the truth."