For decades Saddam Hussein’s infamous Abu Ghraib dungeon was the scene of terrible cruelty against innocent Iraqi captives. Now the US forces are in charge and it’s business as usual as the torture continues. Images of cruelty against the detainees surfaced last night and were broadcast on ABC’s ‘60 minutes’ programme. The shots showing Iraqis being brutalised by their American captors must have shocked the locals in Land of the Free. Their image of being liberators and benefactors disintegrated in a nanosecond.
Overall it’s been a bad week for the Pentagon PR minders. They’ve spectacularly failed to turn and spin the terrible tide of news coming out of Iraq. They found it impossible to control the picture of coffins returning home last week, and just seven days later stark pictures of torture and possible crimes against humanity have thrust a blade deep into the heart of the United States’ crusading image. A poll in the New York Times yesterday showed for the first time that there’s a significant majority against the US policy toward Iraq.
Out there in the communications universe there’s a multi-million pound industry called ‘Media Training’. The point of this is to coach clients and make them aware of the various gaping pitfalls they’re at risk of tumbling into when dealing with the media at large. It’s a well-heeled process and in my opinion incredibly flawed. I’ve watched some very able practitioners work their magic on some very poor communicators, but on other occasions I’ve seen the theory’s total inability to strike at the heart of the subject.
Of course it would be impossible to put the entire sprawling mass of America’s military through this process, but there is a well-travelled road for those who plunder the government dollar. The simple truth is that the best PR is usually founded on simple common sense. Exposing and reminding the subject of the obvious is a model that’ll always work, but it’s costly and time-consuming, requiring endless repetition. The self-explanatory is sometimes ignored, and chiefs who arrogantly believe their boys and girls are morally superior and would never mirror the crimes of the enemy are naive. The ‘pack mentality’ has always proved flawed, and classroom basics are needed to teach the elemental truth that the media’s eye is forever focused on actions and deeds.
Can the stupidity and frailty of man ever be underestimated? Not if you rely on the voting will of a nation.
So if there are no trained, single-minded guardians on the ground, looking out for the conduct of the troops, how can the atrocities of Abu Ghraib be avoided? The politicians and generals, so quick to tell the world of their triumph in the field, put barely a thought into the real battle – the PR battle – which was to win the peace.