Monday, June 8, 2009

Operating in the Gray--Does VOA=VOT?

One of our greatest challenges as military communication professionals is what I call "operating in the gray." In some ways "operating in the gray," is our bread and butter, is where the rubber meets the road, is what we bring to the fight. Bad cliches aside, "operating in the gray" is essential for military communicators because few others either want to or are trained to operate in the gray.

So much of what we do in the Air Force is black and white. We're checklist driven for good reason. Order enables execution and minimizes mistakes.

But the communication mission is mostly gray. The successful PA develops "gray vision" and from that gains the credibility to provide trusted counsel to leaders. "Gray vision" enables you to know when you need to respond to a media report or just leave it alone. "Gray vision" enables you to predict the reaction and bounce of an issue and advise leaders about taking the next step. Because they're in the gray with you--and you have "gray vision"--they need you to lead them out of it.

We have to understand that we operate in the gray. We have to get comfortable navigating through the gray and we have to know when to bring others into the gray. Unfortunately, not all PAs get the gray concept. Others can see the gray but they have no desire to walk into it. And, of course, there is the other extreme--those who only want to operate in the gray. That's admirable but very tactical. You have to be able to see clearly where you're going first, in order to step into the gray and be successful.

If you've gotten this far in the blog and you're thinking I'm nuts--let me give you an example. Washington Times reporter Eli Lake had an exclusive story on June 2 titled Voice of Taliban On VOA Queried. The story was about a State Department Inspector General review on the Voice of America interviewing a top Pakistani Taliban leader for one of their programs. The interview was on the Pashto-language VOA service known as Deewa Radio.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican, raised the concerns about the interview to the State Department. Rep. Kirk is credited as being a strong proponent of Deewa Radio. He, however, didn't see the wisdom in U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent for what he called, "...subsidizing fee air-time for al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban leaders."

It's not the first time VOA has been in hot water over interviewing Taliban leaders. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Deewa Radio interviewed Talibal leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. While the interview sparked controversy, Ms. Spozhmai Maiwandi who manages the Pashto-service, said she thought it was important to ask Mullah Omar "...whether he was willing to let all Afghans suffer by continuing to harbor al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden."

Now that I've walked you into the "gray," please consider these questions and provide me your thoughts:
When is it reasonable for us to communicate with the enemy in a public forum?
What can we learn about the enemy when we interview them and how can/should we use that information?
Is it possible to deliver a message while interviewing the enemy and then broadcasting a story?
Is what I'm describing too much like information operations and not enough like journalism?

Welcome to the gray. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks for reading.