Press Secretary 101
June 23, 2010 - 3:31 AMIf I were Gen. Stanley McChrystal's boss, he not only wouldn't have to offer his resignation (I would have fired him), he would have had to pay his own cab fare home from Kabul.
I would also fire every member of his staff -- civilian and military -- who could have, but did not, intervene in the decision for McChrystal to do an in-depth interview with a free-lance reporter who was writing for Rolling Stone magazine.
To get the politics out of the way early, I will stipulate that if McChrystal had said awful things about President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, many members of the national press corps would be writing essays about how great it was that Gen. McChrystal had the "courage to speak truth to power."
Let's go through the Press Secretary 101 syllabus.
I have been, as most of you know, press secretary to Dan Quayle when he was a Congressman and a Senator; and to Newt Gingrich when he was Republican Whip. I was also the communications director of the Newt's political shop when he was Speaker.
I have had an excellent association with reporters over the decades because I have adhered to these three rules:
1. I have never sold out my boss to curry favor with the press.
2. I have never lied to the press to protect my boss.
3. If I don't know an answer, I say so. I don't pretend to be on the "inside" of every discussion ever held in Washington.
The first thing you do when you get a request from a reporter -- especially a free-lancer -- you haven't met is to Google him (or her) and see what kinds of stuff they have written before.
Next you call reporters you do know and, in effect, ask for references.
Then you look at the newspaper, magazine, or website the free-lance reporter is writing for and see what kinds of stuff they have been running.
Finally, you talk to the reporter and lay down the ground rules. What's on the record, what's on background; what's off the record.
If you are not familiar with a reporter, you have to assume that everything will be ON the record because if you don't know him, you don't know if you can trust him. If you don't know if you can trust him; you can't. Period.
After you've been through all that, decide on whether this interview will further your interests. If you can't see a good reason to invest your time; don't.
I would love to talk to someone who was in the decision to have a four-star general spend time on a Rolling Stone piece, and why they thought this could have any outcome other than what has happened.
Rolling Stone is not exactly trying to elbow the Weekly Standard out of its position as the Official Journal of Intellectual Conservatism. In fact, you can see the current cover by clicking on the Secret Decoder Ring page.
Next, you work with your principal and make sure he (or she) understands the dangers of "chatting" with a reporter. The problem with senior corporate, military, or government executives is: They each believe they are the smartest person in any room they are in, and can intimidate and/or charm anyone into doing their bidding.
Never let your principal and the reporter be alone. Ever. If the reporter is in the vicinity, you are in the vicinity. If your boss is going off the reservation you have to have the guts to throw yourself on the verbal hand grenade and stop him.
For senior corporate, military, or government executives; I have this advice.
1. Have people around you who have the authority to tell you (verbally or otherwise) to shut up.
2. Do not have people around you who are more interested in being invited to the Radio-TV Correspondent's Dinner than they are in protecting your interests.
3. Do not ever think that off-the-record means off-the-record. Unless you have worked with a reporter for years - YEARS - you can bet on this: If it's juicy enough, it's on-the-record.
In the end, though, every senior person is responsible for the decision to do an interview or not. And every senior person is responsible for the words that come out of his (or her) mouth.
Stanley McChrystal showed such appallingly bad judgment it will probably cost him his career.
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: A link to the Rolling Stone magazine article in question. It's worse than the snippets you've read. Also a Mullfoto which only I would find interesting and, as previously promised (as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show might have put it) what you'll find "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone."