Friday, August 1, 2008

The Army fails public relations 101

If the Army wanted to demonstrate their incompetence in handling public relations and communications, they couldn't have done better than their performance Thursday at a closed-door press conference at the Inn at Middletown.

To begin with, they excluded three important town representatives from the meeting. Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, State Senator Paul Doyle and State Representative Joe Serra were all prevented from entering the meeting to observe, leaving them stewing in the hallway. Attorney General Dick Blumenthal was allowed in, apparently because he called ahead and asked permission. So before the press conference had even begun, the Army further alienated town and state officials whom they need on their side.

Then the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Reserve went about the task of clarifying the facts. They claimed that there was a lot of false information being bandied about. Unfortunately for the Army, they don't have a stellar reputation for being straightforward. These past seven years have shown a disgraceful disregard for the truth as the Pentagon attempted to assist the President in spinning their misguided misadventures in Iraq. And now the Army is going to set the record straight?

Here's how they did it.

In every meeting up until this one the Army claimed the base would support 800 reservists visiting the site on weekends each month, and that the base would have 150 full-time employees. Those claims were made to support the argument that the Training Center would have a positive economic impact on the city. Now that the Army is addressing charges that the base would put an undue traffic burden on country roads, they've decided that there will only be 70 full-time employees and 400 reservists and guardsmen for monthly visits. So, the original inaccuracies were disseminated not by passionate opponents to the site, but by the Army itself.

In their prepared statement to the press at the meeting, the Army declared that they would be good neighbors, and would work with the city because they were bound to "go above and beyond" do the right thing. But when questioned by a correspondent from the Middletown Eye about exactly how many homes adjoined the site, no one in the room - not one representative of the group who were claiming to be good neighbors, and who declared they were doing a thorough job - no one knew the answer. In fact, all of the homes on Atkins, Old Farms East and Timber Ridge will be affected either directly, or indirectly by the construction of the facility.

The Army Corps of Engineers also declared that, as opposed to public impression, there would be no live ammunition, and no outside military exercises conducted on the site. That would go under the heading of "correcting a misinterpretation which didn't exist." I've been to most of the meetings with the Corps, and know that the question has consistently been asked - "What will the Army be doing on the site?" The answer has always been, "Classroom training, and training on vehicle maintenance." No where - in the press, on blogs, in public meetings - has anyone protested because the army would be using live ammunition, or conducting outdoor military exercises.

The Corps also described the facility as something like "Wesleyan University." Well, unless they intend to immediately disregard their "don't ask, don't tell" policy, I can guarantee it won't be anything like Wesleyan University (though probably unbeknownst to the Army Reserve, the original buildings at Wesleyan University began as a military school!). The building will be more like a WalMart with a huge parking lot then it will ever be like Wesleyan University.

The Army also allowed a representative of the current owners of the property to speak. Pedro Wasmer, of Fairfield, represents a group of real estate investors which includes, by his own account, pharmacists, doctors, and people like that, who are, in fact, Middletown taxpayers, but who don't live in town. The group has not been able to lure any other development to the hard-to-develop site, so they support the Army's plan. Wasmer conjured up the "grand military history" of the state of Connecticut to lend support to the plans. Of course, his real interest in the Army's plans is not the "grand military history" but the benefit to his own group of investors.

So at the end of the day, the Army, which hoped to use the press conference to bolster support, ended up angering state and local officials, engaging a formidable new opponent in the person of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, getting their lock-out of local officials as lead-stories on local newscasts and in local papers, further generating local public opposition and altering their presentation with a new set of facts to align with their current strategy.

Oops, doesn't seem like a good communications day to me.

UPDATE: BTW, I love the way the Army is helping the poor farm animals. The Army realizes that the fate of furry creatures is often more important to readers and viewers, then the fate of human beings. So, they're going to make an effort to help pay for the transfer of the animals to a nice new farm - where they'll be happy and free!!! And no puppies will be killed in the construction of the new facility.

Also, at one point, one of the Army reps said that residents of the state should be thankful that federal dollars and not state dollars will be used to build the facility. That's a relief, because I pay state taxes, and the federal money comes from....hey, wait a minute!

More detailed and complex reporting on the meeting, including environmental impact and other issues will be discussed in a following post.

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