In the aftermath of the Rolling Stone magazine article that lead to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, leaders have become acutely aware of the importance of knowing how to appropriately engage with journalists.
In a July 2 memo to senior civilian and military leaders, Department of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates highlighted the need for leaders to take media engagement seriously, and to stay within their levels of knowledge. Gates expressed his concerns about how the department has grown lax in following long-established rules and procedures for engaging with the media.
“We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized or uninformed by the perspective of those who are most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra-agency policy, processes and activities,” he wrote in the memo.
Gates wants to ensure leaders safeguard classified and sensitive information, said Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. David Lapan. While leaking classified information is illegal, leaders must be careful with unclassified information as well, Gates noted.
The secretary also wants to ensure that leaders speaking to the media do so with full knowledge of what they say, and without offering opinions on topics outside their areas of expertise, Lapan said.
The memo and resulting implementation guidance are not in response to the “Runaway General” story in Rolling Stone, Lapan said. Nor is it intended to kill any interaction with the media or have any effect on the day-to-day activities of reporters, the colonel said. However, before granting requests for interviews or other media engagements with possible national or international implications, officials need to notify DoD public affairs officials about it.
Defense public affairs officials can recommend against a commander engaging with media on a subject, but cannot forbid it. Commanders own the public-affairs program for their units or areas of responsibility, Lapan noted, and commanders can choose to ignore DoD advice.