Friday, September 25, 2015

Classic Quotable: Barry Zorthian on “Effective Press Relations”

Wednesday, September 23rd 2015

In June, 1970, the Marine Corps Gazette published the text of a talk, “Effective Press Relations,” given to students at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College earlier that year by legendary USIA officer Barry Zorthian (1920-2010).  He was Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Saigon from 1964 to 1968.  Among other topics, he addressed respect for the role of the press, the Foreign Service’s unrealistic expectation that it has to “win all the press issues.” and the difference between publicity and information.

. . . 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. * * * *

. . .  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. . . . You simply cannot get away with a gap between reality and your articulation of it. So the sophistication of the day -- this irreverent, questioning, skeptical mood of the day -- has to be taken into account and accepted as a fact of life. The issue is not really whether it's good or not; the issue is that it's there. * * * *

I've bad 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 per cent, 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 per cent, you're doing well; and if you're getting 60 to 70 per cent 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 . . . is perhaps blunt the harm in a damaging story, making it less bad than it might be otherwise. . . . You can, perhaps, blunt the negative impact by the way you handle it, the approach you take, and the attitude you show. * * * *

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. * * *  * 

Finally, I'd suggest as part of press doctrine that we look at the press as an opportunity. I think there is a difference in approaching the press within a framework of positive, constructive thinking rather than as a chore, a frustration, or perhaps the last choice beyond jumping into a pit of vipers. Too often our senior commanders in Vietnam, both military and civilian, failed with the press. As a result they failed with the American public and failed to support U.S. policy by actively disliking the press and by approaching the press in terms of hostility, whatever the justification.

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