Guy W. Farmer: PR can’t defend policy when there isn’t one
July 25, 2015
For more than 30 years I was a press spokesman, first for the state of Nevada's gambling control agencies and then for the U.S. government abroad. It was my job to support, defend and explain governmental policies and actions, and that's what I did during my working career.
In the 1960s I was the spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Commission and Gaming Control Board when they revoked singer Frank Sinatra's gambling license for hosting Chicago Godfather Sam Giancana at North Lake Tahoe's Cal-Neva Lodge, which Sinatra co-owned. Giancana was a notorious "Black Book" figure who was barred from Nevada casinos and Sinatra knowingly violated gaming agency rules and regulations in open defiance of then-Gov. Grant Sawyer's "hang tough" gaming control policies.
It was relatively easy to support, defend and explain the governor's gaming control policies and I was proud to be a spokesman for our state during the high-profile Sinatra case.
Any successful press spokesperson must believe in the policies he or she's defending and your superiors must endorse what you say in public. And that's exactly what happened in 1983 when, as spokesman for the U.S. Mission in Grenada, I was called upon to support and defend Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S.-led multinational invasion of that tiny Caribbean island.
I agreed with President Reagan's policy and had no difficulty explaining it on national TV. The objective — restoring conditions that allowed Grenadians to elect new leaders — was limited and Reagan kept his promise to remove American troops after the fighting ended.
Now, let's contrast those personal examples with what's happening today as Obama administration spokespeople attempt to defend confused policies that no one can understand. I felt sorry for White House spokesman Josh Earnest as he tried to explain why we traded five Islamic terrorists for Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, even though we allegedly don't negotiate with terrorists. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State says we've never been safer but the CIA director says the world is more dangerous than ever. How would you like to be the spokesperson for our anti-terrorism policies? No thanks!
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Which raises another important question? What is the State Department's highest priority foreign policy issue? You might think it would be rampant international terrorism, or the struggling world economy, or perhaps the controversial nuclear deal with Iran. Think again.
If you were to read the July issue of the Foreign Service Journal, the monthly magazine of State's career diplomats, you'd think the highest priority policy issue was LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) affairs. The July Journal devoted 26 pages to the need to spread America's tolerant LGBT message around the world, even to countries where homosexuality is illegal. We disagree with those countries of course, but is it our job to impose our moral values on other cultures? I wouldn't want to be Randy Berry, State's first-ever special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons, when he visits the homophobic, war-torn Middle East with his South African husband.
And speaking of our anti-terrorism policies, State's former spokesman for "strategic counterterrorism communications," career diplomat Amb. Alberto Fernandez, retired in April, probably because the administration's anti-terrorism policies haven't been working. Meanwhile, State is mostly silent while ISIS bombards the social media with slick recruiting videos. Fernandez was replaced by Rashad Hussain, former special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Draw your own conclusions.
I've written many times your PR is only as good, or as bad, as your policies. You can pour a lot of perfume on a goat but in the final analysis, it's still a goat. That's why I feel sorry for Obama administration spokespeople.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat who was a public diplomacy specialist.