Media is the Battlefield
Arab Media Interviews and the American Commander
by LTC Randy A. Martin, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Observer/Controller,
Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) Operations Group
COL Smith, the commander of 3rd Brigade, 21st Infantry Division, entered the studio. It was a foreign place in every way. Although his personal security detachment had swept through just moments earlier, emerging satisfied there were no hidden threats, the colonel wasn’t so sanguine. In fact, he was paralyzed by fear at what he saw.
A confident looking man sat at a desk across from the brigade commander; the local disc jockey (DJ) appeared to have an equal amount of experience in his craft as the colonel. The DJ moved fluidly and issued instructions to his staff as the commander entered the room. They were late for the scheduled “show.”
The DJ looked up at COL Smith and spoke in Arabic, leaving the American clueless. A hand gesture seemed to suggest both haste and a desire for COL Smith to sit down. There between them were headsets and two microphones. Decks of equipment lined the walls. There were flashing lights and music was playing. COL Smith was clearly out of his comfort zone; everything seemed foreign to COL Smith’s senses. “We didn’t prepare for this,” COL Smith said to himself.
The PAO, who had the foresight to bring a video camera, and COL Smith’s interpreter took their flanking positions. They still had on their body armor and the room seemed like an oven to all three. Their misery was only beginning.
The interview seemed like it would never end, but of course it did. COL Smith felt defeated and drained. He knew he had not prepared for the engagement. He also knew and believed such “stuff” was important. After all, he knew success here depended on his ability to engage the public. “Warrior ethos,” he said to himself. “Engage.” Then, with a calm and firm voice, he gave the PAO directions to prepare for subsequent opportunities.
The PAO, a smart young officer, gathered a team of cultural experts on the staff, as well as a team of locally-hired interpreters. They reviewed the taped interview, picking it apart carefully for ways to improve. The staff then designed a guide for future media engagements in Arabic culture. There were six key points:
- Build and maintain rapport with the interviewer and audience before, during, and after the engagement.
- Be polite and professional.
- Demonstrate your knowledge and respect for Arabic culture.
- Be confident with your response and the Army’s purpose.
- Provide facts that support your purpose.
- Plan and conduct the engagement like a combat operation.
When the staff presented COL Smith with their final product, he read it carefully. With a couple of minor changes, he adapted it for use with all media. He planned a regular program for engagements with local TV, radio, and print reporters. Each time he used the six points.
Build and maintain rapport with the interviewer and audience before, during, and after the engagement.
- It is always best to greet the audience and host with an appropriate cultural and verbal greeting (hand over heart, Arabic “hello,” first and last names, firm handshakes, calm demeanor).
- Create a connection with the audience. For example, “I’m a family man and my kids names are … . They want to live in a safe world just like your children.” Or ,“I graduated from college with a degree in science and I know that your nation gave the world its first scientists.”
Be polite and professional.
- Thank each person who asks you a question.
- Take notes and answer each question asked.
- Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but your question is important and I’ll get you an answer.”
- Have a good interpreter that can express emotions.
- Sit or stand straight and look at the interviewer, not the interpreter.
- Use hand and arm gestures that are natural and friendly.
- Think about your answer before you speak; a pregnant pause might be necessary in order to compose your thoughts.
Show an understanding and appreciation for Arabic culture.
- Compliment their culture, country, and traditions continuously.
- Use as much Arabic as you can.
- Don’t talk about your pets.
- Don’t talk about your girlfriends.
- Don’t joke.
- Don’t talk about women.
- Don’t argue about religion.
- Use metaphors that will work in the culture to describe enemies.
- Mention people, places, and organizations that are helping you because it builds their esteem and your alliance with them.
- Demonstrate knowledge of their history and religion.
Be confident with your response and the Army’s purpose.
- Don’t say “if,” say “when.” It’s more powerful and positive.
- Immediately counter false accusations with denials: “We aren’t what you said we are, we are _________ ; you are wrong.”
- Too much empathy shows weakness.
- Speak from a position of authority and power.
- Don’t use “uhhhh,” or “ummm;” it sounds like you are grieving.
- Sound enthusiastic and passionate.
- Introduce the Army values.
- Talk about the great ideals of freedom and a democratic system.
- Look for creative ways to describe your purpose: “a safe and secure environment.”
Provide facts that support your purpose.
- React to each question with a fact; bridge to and close with a command message.
- Be nested with your higher headquarters and what they are communicating.
- Short but complete answers are best, allowing for translation.
- Remind people about our nation’s commitments and successes in history.
- Have and use facts: dollars spent, patients treated, etc.
- Tell about fighting capabilities in general terms.
- In the absence of facts, talk about the process for (among other things) treatment of detainees, investigations, civil affairs assessments, decision making, etc.
- Our acronyms, technical terms, slang, and some adages won’t work.
Plan and conduct the engagement like a combat operation.
- Conduct rehearsals.
- Gather information about your audience, the medium you are using, and the interviewer.
- Use a team approach to answering questions.
- Share lessons learned laterally and vertically.
- Reinforce the command’s messages.
- Know that your audience will cross over multiple demographic boundaries.
One week later, COL Smith returned to the radio station. This time he’d taken a few extra measures to make the event a better engagement. His staff had planned for it and rehearsed him thoroughly. His messages were nested in those of the higher command. He understood and used the six major points his staff had outlined for the engagement.
The PAO and interpreter entered the radio station. They greeted the DJ with an Arabic phrase and a hand over heart as a sign of respect. After an introduction, COL Smith smiled widely. He was clearly more comfortable.
When the time was right, they all entered the studio together. The commander spoke to the interviewer. He took time to build rapport. He answered each question. He realized that his message would be heard by hundreds of thousands in multiple audiences. Satisfied with his engagement, the team left.
They had planned and conducted the engagement like a combat operation. They provided facts to support their purpose. They’d demonstrated open confidence in their purpose. They had shown a keen understanding and respect for Arabic culture. They had been professional and had built rapport throughout the engagement. And, most importantly, they had succeeded!
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