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Devens troops get first-hand lesson in media relations

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DEVENS — Army Reservists attached to the Northeast Information Operations Command (NIOC) met with Nashoba Publishing staff members on Devens Saturday for a lesson in dealing with news media.

Managing Editor Kate Walsh, staff writer Don Eriksson and photographer John Love attended the two-hour class. Walsh and Eriksson agreed to interview soldiers one-on-one to give them experience in dealing with media while Love photographed them.

The interviews were also videotaped to provide each soldier with feedback on how he or she responded to questioning.

NIOC is a subordinate unit to the Army Reserve Information Operations Command in Adelphi, Md., according to Maj. Gail Owen.

”We’re one of five information operation (IO) centers that fall under IO command, regionally located around the country,” she said.

The unit’s mission, she said, is computer network defense and information assurance.

”The bottom line is, we must know not only how to protect our own computer networks, but that Army networks are not vulnerable to attack,” she said. “We must protect ourselves while still being able to communicate critical information by computer while not being vulnerable. Scanning existing networks is a big part of what we do.”

The importance placed on dealing with the media, said Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Master Sgt. Richard Lambert, is exemplified by the virtual indestructibility of the media card distributed to the 32 soldiers in the classroom.

Lambert projected pictures onto a screen that showed soldiers being interviewed by media. The slides illustrated how omni-present the news media is at all kinds of events, everything from a welcome home gathering to the opening of a new military building.

”Every one of you is an official Army spokesperson,” he said.

”Wherever you are, whatever you say, they’re going to take whatever you say as being spoken by the Army. Be careful what you say. If something happens they (the media) will come,” said Unit commander, Lt. Col. William Carroll.

”The military is a spectator sport,” said Lambert. “The public has a right to know what we do. No news is local news. All news has the ability to go global.”

The mission of public affairs, said Lambert, “is to account for our actions to the American people, who we serve. The most important thing is that we must be honest. There will be things we can’t say,” but the rule of thumb is “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.”

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the physical battle has been won, he said. What has not been conveyed is the good news.

”That’s why what we say, getting the word out, is so important,” said Lambert.

Soldiers could learn from Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld, and “answer a question with a question you wish they asked,” he said.

”Talk about successes, the training mission, how your family and employer supports you,” said Lambert. “They will get the story. You don’t have the right to know questions in advance, to see the story in advance or to change your quotes.

Lambert spoke of the differences between television and print media as well. When interviewed on television, a soldier’s body language is most important.

”Sixty-seven percent of what people pick up from a broadcast is your face and body,” he said. “Only 3 percent will they remember.”

The print media is different, he said. “They are looking for quotes, for anecdotes that will capture the reader’s imagination. Here, you must be more careful about what you say,” Lambert said.

”If you’re a lower rank you can refer the reporter up the chain of command if you don’t know if a question violates the integrity of the unit,” he said. “Point them to the commander. Refer them to the PAO.”

”Never say ‘no comment.’ Why?” he asked. “Because it implies guilt and a reporter will dig harder. (We want) maximum truth in minimum time.”

In preparing for an interview, should there be time to do so, Lambert told the soldiers to outline their main quotes and anticipate hard questions including five you hope don’t get asked and have them in your back pocket.

”The red light on a camera doesn’t need to be on,” he said, brandishing a video camera and pointing it at unsuspecting participants. “The audio is always on. Everything you say is on the record.”

He advised that no one should go off the record with comments, the acronyms so commonplace to the military should be avoided and to remember the role as a salesperson for the Army.

”Tell the truth. Don’t speculate, and remember OPSEC (operational security),” Lambert said.

”If you can tell them (the media), tell them,” he said. “If you can’t tell them, tell them why you can’t tell them. And if you can’t tell them why you can’t tell them, tell them,” he said.

”Grumbling lowers support for the military,” he continued. “Stay in control. You can end the interview at any time. And, do not discuss foreign policy. Steer your answers to information you’re comfortable with. You want to make sure you get your positive message across.

”When you wear the uniform you have to remember you are an official spokesman,” Lambert said.

”From our perspective (as the) local press, we appreciate the truth,” Walsh said. “And we have a high regard for those serving in the military.”

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