Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 20, 2006

Should DHS speak with “one voice”?

Filed under: DHS News — by Christian Beckner on February 20, 2006

From a Washington Post story on remarks by Sec. Rumsfeld at the Council on Foreign Relations last week:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday called for the military and other government agencies to mount a far more aggressive, swift and nontraditional information campaign to counter the messages of extremist and terrorist groups in the world media….

U.S. public affairs operations tend to be “reactive rather than proactive,” Rumsfeld said, operating slowly during standard working hours while “our enemies are operating 24/7 across every time zone. That is an unacceptably dangerous deficiency.”

To remedy this, he called for increased communications training for military public affairs officials by drawing on private-sector expertise, noting that public affairs jobs in the military have not been “career enhancing.” He also called for creating 24-hour media operations centers and “multifaceted media campaigns” using the Internet, blogs and satellite television that “will result in much less reliance on the traditional print press.”

From a Department of Homeland Security memorandum (dated Oct. 2004, but first posted on the site last week) on submitting content to DHS.gov:

DHS speaks with One Voice.

Rumsfeld’s assessment of the media reality in the world today is exactly correct. Public affairs operations within the federal government are ill-suited to respond to issues in a 24-hour news cycle, where information collection and opinion formation have become decentralized.

And statements like this from DHS make me concerned that the Department is following the old, slow, command-and-control model of public outreach. Other passages in the same document reinforce this view; for example, it notes that “new pages should normally be posted to the Web site within two to five business days after receiving the request in final form.” 2-5 days??!! Why should it take that long?

Instead, DHS should be taking advantage of its relatively clean slate and follow a decentralized and networked approach for public outreach. Departments and offices within DHS should be encouraged to post new content on their own authority. Key departmental subject matter experts should be empowered to engage with the public directly via media outreach, publications, and blogs, rather than only communicating through narrow bureaucratic bottlenecks.

To be certain, this is a messy process, and one that will be uncomfortable to those who are accustomed to asserting “message control” over institutions. And there are certainly sensitive subjects (e.g. current threat intelligence, infrastructure vulnerabilities) where an open approach is not warranted. But it’s an approach that I think ultimately strengthens our homeland security, by the fact that it broadens public outreach and can improve peoples’ awareness about their role in homeland security.

DHS needs to speak with many voices.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 21, 2006 @ 9:00 am

The whole issue of effective and efficient public affairs operations in the excutive branch should be studied by the Congress and probably needs legislation. Even more important than reviewing the “Counter-Propaganda” operations established by William Greener in the Nixon administration for DOD that became a model government wide, DHS is faced with the highly technical subject of Emergency Public Information, including the issuances of “PAR’s” to the public. A PAR is a public action recommendation such as evacuation which may result in deaths and property destruction of misdirected, misunderstood, or just plain wrong. All media should be allowed to participate in PAR training so it is not left to “Blonde Bimbo’s” to tell the public how to save themselves. Again this is a highly technical, greatly misunderstoon arena that suffers from the lack of academic research since the advent of the 24-7 cable news system in the 80’s. For a good example of what can go wrong look at some of the studies of former Governor Thompson at HHS and the “Anthrax Crisis”.

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