by Steve Adubato, PhD

Some organizations still think the best communication and PR strategy when challenged by the media is to stonewall, cover-up and try to deny access. Consider the case of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After a series of scathing reports in the Washington Post and subsequent exposes by other media organizations regarding deplorable conditions facing wounded American soldiers, the Pentagon has engaged in one of the worst communication efforts in recent times.

Media reports highlighted “building 18” at Walter Reed, a cockroach- and rodent-infested, dilapidated, converted hotel where outplacement care was supposed to take place. Numerous veterans, including those who testified in Congress this past week, recounted being ignored or mistreated by the medical and administrative staff at Walter Reed. President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted the Pentagon brass for its handling of Walter Reed, and numerous officers and the Secretary of the Army, were let go or forced out.

Q—What exactly was the Pentagon’s initial communication strategy in response to negative media reports about conditions at Walter Reed?

A—They attempted to minimize what was obvious to everyone. In fact, Lieutenant General Kevin C. Kiley, MD, who formerly ran Walter Reed, said, “I do not consider building 18 to be substandard . . . They (the problems) weren’t serious . . . I want to reset the thinking that while we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed.”

Q—What’s wrong with that statement?

A—It lacks credibility. Later, in Congressional testimony, General Kiley would apologize profusely and say that he was “unaware” of the deplorable conditions at building 18. Instead of communicating in a forthright fashion, he resisted and fought the media. This approach made his later apology less effective when he was forced to appear before Congress. Further, by saying that the situation was “not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed” sent the wrong message. Never repeat a negative charge and then deny it. It doesn’t work.

Q—How did the Pentagon’s communication strategy “stonewall” the media?

A—Apparently, wounded soldiers housed at Walter Reed were told not to speak to the media. This is a communications mistake. By doing this, the Pentagon made the story bigger by appearing to try to “cover-up” the problem and deny wounded American soldiers the right to speak publicly, which made the Pentagon look guilty to many. Further, no organization, including the U.S. military, can really control communications by shutting it down. To think you can, only invites a bigger PR disaster.

Q—But General Kiley and his colleagues did apologize in front of Congress this week. Don’t you always say apologizing is a smart communication strategy?

A—Absolutely, but the key for an apology to be effective is that it must be communicated immediately, before you are forced to do it. Unfortunately, Kiley and his colleagues opted to not apologize when they could have and should have. Further, they were seen as insensitive by many after all their denials and stonewalling.

Q—What else should the Pentagon have communicated initially?

A—Beyond committing to “fixing the unacceptable problems at Walter Reed,” they should have shown more empathy and compassion for our wounded soldiers. If they didn’t have the resources and dollars to provide appropriate medical care, they should have publicly communicated to those who could have been responsive. Finally, they should have thanked the media for shedding light on the problem and led a public awareness campaign to support our veterans getting the medical care they deserve. Being part of the solution is always better than being a contributor to the problem.