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.