Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Barno: Generals who can’t handle dealing with the media aren’t very good generals

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.) Best Defense office of flag officer affairs The recent firing of Maj. Gen. Fuller by ISAF commander Gen. John Allen once again has thrust the interaction between the media and our senior military leaders into the public sphere. For a General Officer (not a lieutenant)in today’s world, effectively ...

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By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense office of flag officer affairs

The recent firing of Maj. Gen. Fuller by ISAF commander Gen. John Allen once again has thrust the interaction between the media and our senior military leaders into the public sphere. For a General Officer (not a lieutenant)in today's world, effectively dealing with the media and conducting all manner of operations in a media intense environment is a core competency. If GOs are unable to navigate that environment today, they simply should not be GOs. The trend toward "press avoidance" by more and more generals as an escape route reflects a GO population that is out of its depth in understanding and dealing with the Fourth Estate -- and, arguably, therefore also in communicating to the American people. Avoiding the press is in many ways an abdication of commanders' fundamental responsibility to tell the story of their command or mission to the our citizenry and to our lawmakers, almost all of whom learn these things only through the news.

Understanding the global media environment and maintaining the daily situational awareness of what's going on around them is a fundamental of strategic leadership in 2011. GOs who are less than 3-dimensional leaders will have difficulty with this -- it would be interesting to dissect MG Fuller's background to see if anything in his unusual rise through acquisition ranks to become the deputy US General training Afghans ever exposed him to anything 3-dimensional as opposed to 1-D or 2-D largely job-focused tasks.

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense office of flag officer affairs

The recent firing of Maj. Gen. Fuller by ISAF commander Gen. John Allen once again has thrust the interaction between the media and our senior military leaders into the public sphere. For a General Officer (not a lieutenant)in today’s world, effectively dealing with the media and conducting all manner of operations in a media intense environment is a core competency. If GOs are unable to navigate that environment today, they simply should not be GOs. The trend toward “press avoidance” by more and more generals as an escape route reflects a GO population that is out of its depth in understanding and dealing with the Fourth Estate — and, arguably, therefore also in communicating to the American people. Avoiding the press is in many ways an abdication of commanders’ fundamental responsibility to tell the story of their command or mission to the our citizenry and to our lawmakers, almost all of whom learn these things only through the news.

Understanding the global media environment and maintaining the daily situational awareness of what’s going on around them is a fundamental of strategic leadership in 2011. GOs who are less than 3-dimensional leaders will have difficulty with this — it would be interesting to dissect MG Fuller’s background to see if anything in his unusual rise through acquisition ranks to become the deputy US General training Afghans ever exposed him to anything 3-dimensional as opposed to 1-D or 2-D largely job-focused tasks.

It is also worth reminding generals of an obvious point: Even When you are in the depths of an interview, you always have the opportunity to say nothing! Not answering a question designed to elicit a “newsworthy” remark is perfectly acceptable – most especially when you are asked to opine on something that, even though you may have strong personal feelings, has little or nothing to do with either your job or the ostensible purpose of the interview. Not answering baited questions is a level 101 skill – and reflects a smart choice and one much different than simply parroting command talking points or being “shaped” by a zealous PAO minder. 

The bottom line is that Generals have to have their wits about them and see where they and their interactions with media fit in the macro environment – that messy collage of national politics, ambitious reporters, newsmaking goals, U.S. government and host nation sensitivities, and the enemy’s media game plan. If you can’t fit all those pieces together and operate in that environment, first, you shouldn’t try and second, you probably shouldn’t be a general officer in the complex and very public world of 2011.

IMHO, this is really not all that stunningly hard to figure out and be ready for – and it’s absolutely part of your job these days as a guy or gal wearing stars on your shoulders.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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