A journalist has tried to shine a spotlight on the Pentagon’s blogger relations program — and failed miserably.
Recent postings to Harpers.com (here and here) by Ken Silverstein suggest that the Pentagon is engaged in a propaganda campaign, managed by junior political appointees, to seed its message among conservative bloggers.
As someone who has participated in the “surrogate outreach” program, I can tell you first hand that Silverstein’s reporting is sensationalized drivel.
Who is running the show?
Mr. Silverstein makes much ado about a junior political appointee who supposedly runs the program named Erin Healy. She may have a toe dipped into the waters of online outreach, but I can tell you that if she does have anything to do with the program, it is cursory at best.
The real key player in the Pentagon’s online communications strategy is Roxie Merritt, a retired Navy Captain who was brought by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Allison Barber on to manage the Pentagon’s new media operations. Merritt is a savvy and seasoned professional communicator who understands the importance of online outreach. It is she, and not Healy, who is responsible for executing this program.
Despite Mr. Silverstein’s claim that the blogger engagement strategy is limited to righties and an occasional moderate, I have never, never, been mistaken for a conservative. (Proof in point — I was reading Harpers).
In a personal conversation at this year’s milblogging conference with Jack Holt, who helps orchestrate the program’s operations, he noted that they have been trying, with limited success, to reach out to liberal bloggers as well.
Granted, my blog does not carry a political tune. I try and keep my observations neutral, as I think that military communications should be devoid of politics. However, having corresponded with numerous staff members from blogger outreach team, I know that several are aware of my political ideology and personal opinion on the Iraq war. In spite of this, I continue to receive invitations to blogger conference calls.
For example, I was on the blogger call with a Navy admiral after the Pentagon’s decision to ban MySpace, YouTube and other social networking sites. Almost everyone on the call was critical of the decision, and the blog coverage reflected it.
A chilling effect?
I hope that the Pentagon’s new media operation takes this hit piece with a grain of salt (which I am sure they will considering the major errors in reporting).
OSD(PA) has made great strides in reaching out to and engaging online influencers. These new online opinion leaders are a key audience to communicate with — and the Pentagon should be applauded for including them in their communication planning, not vilified. From my experience, articles like these do nothing but chill creative communications programs.
Granted, the Pentagon’s outreach is not perfect. Silverstein’s point about the transparency of the program is valid. While most bloggers do disclose that they are getting information directly from Pentagon sources, not all do, so the Pentagon should specifically request that they disclose that fact on every conference call.
And the new media program has other blemishes, such as the For the Record “blog.”
Still, the online outreach program is OSD’s greatest success in dealing with new media. And all that these inaccurate Harpers “exposes” do is discourage communication innovation.
Next time, dig a little bit deeper to find the facts before you go to press, Mr. Silverstein.
Update: Grim’s post about the Harper’s piece at Blackfive. He looks at the article for its implied assumption that bloggers aren’t worthy of talking to the administration, only journalists are. Which I think is funny, given the gross errors in fact in his “journalism.”