by The Other Katherine Harris
Here’s what American taxpayers bought from the Rand Corporation for the Pentagon, in the formerly secret report titled Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation
1. an enormous amount of boilerplate available free at any library and online, which undoubtedly serves as the spine of all preliminary reports from Rand (intoducing basic concepts like positioning, branding, types, audience analysis factors, principles of community and media relations, advertising reach and frequency, contingency planning and damage control, the importance of message consistency, yada-yada, and citing well-known examples from business);
2. a unifying “now you need to buy our research” theme;
3. deceptive bulk created by excessive white space, overlarge type and 38 pages of essentially dead air (15 in titles and other introductory and acknowledgment material, a three-page glossary of military abbreviations well-known to the readers and a 20-page bibliography, all in huge type); and
4. a few reasonable ideas, based on interviews with military personnel and/or simple common sense.
How do I know?
1. I just plowed through the whole damn thing (a 241-page pdf); and
2. I’ve worked in marketing communications and journalism for more than 30 years.
At least half of the document is boilerplate familiar to anybody who’s taken one class or spent a few months in the industry, so we paid $200,000 to give communications officers a Cliffnotes summary that they don’t need (or that we’d better hope they don’t need).
At least 20 percent of the document is filler, even if we allow for the usual title page, a table of contents, acknowledgments and a small-type biblio, so filler cost us $100,000.
Of course it isn’t entirely fair to analyze the cost on a per-page basis, but it does disgust me that 60 percent of what’s in print required no real work to produce –- not to mention the fact that much of the rest is a sales pitch (sometimes thinly veiled and sometimes bare-faced). They did have to spend some time interviewing people, whose complaints and suggestions led to 11 primary recommendations, summarized as follows. For $36,363 per recommendation, we got these:
1. Pursue anticipatory shaping — which means building a fund of goodwill in advance, by doing good things (training the locals, building relationships, aiding humanitarian work). This is a DUH, apart from the advice to spend more on anticipating public perceptions of military contingencies).
2. Better leverage CA/CMO activities — which means mainly aim for more and better publicity and word-of-mouth accounts, but does have some meat to it. They earned a few bucks here.
3. Manage use of force for shaping — meaning “try to kill fewer innocent people” even if it means using different weapons sometimes. This is a DUH.
4. Establish and preserve credibility — meaning “don’t try to deceive anybody but the enemy when necessary”. This is a DUH.
5. Integrate communication — the ultimate DUH, except that they’re so far from actually doing it, in large part due to organizational structure. Consistency is something you preach to every client, about how every aspect of what they’re doing and saying needs to cohere, instead of conflict.
6. Improve communication-resource allocation, joint training and processes — meaning in this case bring marketing into absolutely everything, at all levels, which would actually require changing some laws. Not a DUH, but dubious practice.
7. Address shaping intelligence requirements — in other words, “buy our research” to understand and influence your indigenous audiences. That it’s important to understand one’s targets is a DUH, but a sales pitch didn’t belong here and would be silly even in a separate document at this late date.
8. Establish and maintain the relationships that shaping requires — meaning “be nice” whenever you can. This is a DUH, apart from the specific suggestion of making those who’ve formed good relationships with the locals stay longer (which could easily backfire into more brutality, don’t you think?).
9. Respond better to mistakes — clearly a DUH, apart from suggesting more accountability for those who screw up.
10. Better counter adversaries’ shaping efforts — more or less a duplication of Item 11.
11. Improve relations with news media — more or less a repeat of Item 4. Items four, 10 and 11 would be better thought of as a unit. (Ah, but then the cost per recommendation would be $44,444.)
Yesterday Jeffrey Feldman offered a piece on this subject: called Secret “Madison Ave” Iraq Report Will Enrage Public at Frameshop and How Ketchup Can Stop the Killing at Huffington Post. Dr. Feldman is outraged that “the same techniques used to sell breakfast cereal and hardware” have been applied to shaping public perceptions of a military campaign.
As you can tell from my approach, that isn’t what gets my goat. It’s been done for decades by huge military departments devoted to public information, recruitment and whatnot. Marcom principles can be legitimately applied to almost anything. A lot of it is common sense “duh” stuff and ethical practitioners of the craft tell clients to do the right thing, not just pretend to. I’ve never knowingly lied for a client or advised any sort of devious behavior, and I’m certainly not alone in that.
Rand sometimes appears to take this line — for instance, in counseling more transparency, accountability and respect for Iraqis’ privacy, as well as in the title phrase about “earning” the desired support. What makes me question their own “positioning” is that you don’t get a sense of integrity across the board. Padding their ripoff report to make it seem more substantial, aka worth the money, is one aspect of that. Their constant sales pitch is another. A third, even more troubling, is the tone. There’s a lot of doublespeak, like calling violent attacks “kinetic operations” almost without exception.
Mr. Feldman seems most offended by the report’s opening line, “Counterinsurgency (COIN) and other stability operations are prominent in the contemporary operating environment and are likely to remain so in the future,” which he called a “stunning and cynical” betrayal of the public will with respect to the future.
It is. However, my nominee for top honors in cynicism comes from page 79:
Ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have included several situations in which U.S. forces have made some kind of substantial error with potentially negative shaping consequences. The burning of Taliban corpses; the reputed mass murder in Haditha, Iraq; and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib are examples of mistakes with adverse shaping consequences.
While one has to be sensitive to clients’ sensibilities, calling war crimes “mistakes with adverse shaping consequences” is a new low.