A stark contrast in PR approaches – Border Control and the Australian military

The stark contrast between Australian Army PR strategies and those of the Australian Border Control approach has been highlighted in two journal articles – one by a serving Australian Army Military Public Affairs officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue, and the other by a University of Newcastle academic, Leicha Stewart.

Logue’s paper – Herding Cats: the Evolution of the ADF’s Media Embedding Program in Operational Areas – focusses on the evolution of the ADF’s media embedding program and compares it with US and British approaches.

The US approach was driven by a never again response to the Vietnam War although it was not poor PR but lots of other things which brought the US undone there. With the invasion of Grenada the Reagan administration went the other way and excluded journalists providing them with pre-packaged ‘news’ and lots of Reagan schtick about being ‘just in time’ to prevent Grenada becoming a major threat to the US. One of the pre-packaged ‘news’ items was a quick radio grab with a local claiming: “We free, free at last”. Given the ubiquity of US popular culture it is possible, if still unlikely, that a random person in the street would use such a familiar well-scripted line.

In Iraq – both times – there was a mix of providing packaged news and embedding of journalists. This combination reached its peak with all the footage of bombing and the ‘spontaneous’ pulling down of Saddam’s statue – once again a direct pinch from history and the fall of the Belin Wall and subsequent statue destruction in Central Europe. This has been continued with Afghanistan although the emphasis was more on embedding. Two things the military couldn’t control in Iraq however- although they tried – were the publication in the media of photographs of those killed on active service and the return of coffins.

It should also be remembered in this context that the US military is the single biggest employer of PR people in the world doing everything from psyops to content production. The Australian military PR operation is naturally smaller,

The current ADF embedding approach was trialled in 2009 and introduced in 2010 although from the post-Vietnam period Logue notes that multiple approaches to operational and battlefield media access had been used before being finalised. The approach has been successful as indicated by the number of applications to participate (70 from Australian and international media) in 2012 alone.

Logue says: “From a purely ADF perspective, the conduct of the media embed program, particularly its rapid expansion in the past two years, has done much to enhance the often maligned military-media relationship.” Logue mentions how this “humanises…the waging of war” and builds “both credibility and trust with the Australian public.” The blog tends to think this is largely true although the presentation of modern war as a sort of video game is a big part of the process along with the persistent militarisation of Australian history and the millions of dollars spent on commemorating military history.

Logue admits there are plentiful risks involved but that “the greater risk lies in not granting access to the media. Put simply, if the ADF is proud of its personnel, the organisation should not be afraid of media reporting of their actions.”

This approach is rather different to that of the Australian Border Force – not only in the military’s understated approach to uniforms and the Border Force’s commitment to a uniform which is a curious amalgam of dystopian visions and 19th century Central European light opera – but also in terms of openness, trust and belief that there is nothing to hide. Albeit Logue’s article title does reveal a slightly disaparaging view of the media.

Leicha Stewart’s approach focusses on the militarisation of language in Sovereign Borders and asylum seeker discourse in Australian politics and the media. It starts with a review of a number of studies of democratic governments’ “growing reliance on the militarisation of political issues” and its methodology is based on a six month review of 339 television news reports aired before and after the 2013 Federal election.

Stewart suggests that the constant repetition of variations on the word ‘operational’ “have the potential to compress complex processes into simplistic terms” – which is unsurprising from a political campaign that specialised in three word slogans rather than analysis, argument or evidence. Linking back to the military itself Stewart also concludes that “As a result of the LNP naming their immigration policy …Operation Sovereign Borders, they are drawing on the institutionalised body of military knowledge, expertise and historical legitimacy as an institution which ‘protects’ its national subjects”.

Stewart might have pursued this further by making the point that the Australian military’s legitimacy is largely based on a combination of great competence and integrity. Its legitimacy stems from this reality whereas the LNP and the Border Force is appropriating military language to hide its incompetence and lack of integrity. The fundamental difference was illustrated in the Children Overboard affair. The essential dishonesty at the heart of the affair was not disclosed by the Government or the media but ultimately by the military who – when confronted with questions about what happened – told the truth.

The blog has long lived with accusations about ‘just PR’ often from people and organisations who practise it religiously. But the contrasting approaches revealed by Logue and Stewart provide some fundamental insights into what makes some public information credible and some public information incredible.

Logue’s paper was published in 2013 as part of the Land Warfare Studies Centre (Australia) Working Papers publication program. It’s number 141 and can be accessed through the National Library of Australia catalogue. Stewart’s paper was published in Globalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 2016,2,DO1:10.12893/gjcpi.2016.5. The blog is grateful to two friends for bringing the papers to its attention: Nick Jans for the Logue paper and Julian Kenny for the Stewart one.