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Opinion Short Read

An Open Letter to Director Engagement and Communications

Dear General,

Congratulations on your new post and responsibilities – it comes at a time when the Army (and all the Services), is in need of a major change in how it communicates. For, to put it bluntly, the Army (and for the sake of this short epistle, take it as read that it refers to all the Services, as well as the MoD, corporately) does not communicate, and hasn’t in any appreciable way for well over a decade. As someone who has covered the defence brief for close to 30 years, I can tell you that the information flow from the Army has never been worse, and is close to non-existent. And in this manner, the Army has been progressively alienating itself from the society that it is meant to be part of.

By the way, to pre-empt matters: if you chose to read many/most of my comments as being derived from self-interest, as a defence journalist who has found it ever-more-difficult to get stories (and a living) from the Army, there is of course a degree of truth in there. I do not feel, though, that this detracts from my observations.

Where to begin?

In the 1990s, journalists used to be welcomed onto exercises, as well as into barracks, both in the UK and overseas. This is most certainly not the case now. If Op Notes do, indeed, get published, they can be issued scant hours before events occur, making forward planning for a newsdesk at the BBC/Sky News (or anyone else) next to impossible, and/or travel prohibitively expensive. Further, once on exercise areas, the media tend to get corralled into pens, not allowed to move outside, and then with very limited access to troops, making any stories far less interesting, and certainly with less attractive footage (By-the-way, I’ve just heard that this is what is being suggested for any media facility on Ex Trident Juncture 18). Ah, yes! “’Elf and Safety” is the cry! I’ve even heard “EU Regulations” being cited as a reason why journalists can’t be allowed on exercises, or be allowed to roam (under supervision). Strange, but the same “EU Regulations” doesn’t bar hacks accessing French, Dutch, Polish exercises, and getting really good stories and footage…

Did you know that many defence journalists find it easier to access British Army units on exercises/operations not by going through the Army/MoD, but through host nations? There is no formal requirement for this approach (as is sometimes claimed by MoD military bureaucrats), but anyone wanting to get an insight, say, into the enhanced forward presence battlegroup finds it far easier to deal with a “can do” Estonian MoD.

About a week ago, the French MoD SIRPA Marine and SIRPA Terre (the media organisations for the Navy and Army) issued Op Notes covering all their major exercise activities for the rest of the year, asking anyone (even foreign journalists) interested to put a bid in. And, yes, if you did want to go to the French Navy exercises in the Gulf of Guinea, military transport will be organised, as they understand that they are in areas with limited access. Helicopter from the cost to the ship? Of course! How else will you be able to report the exercise? But they want the coverage, and see an extra seat here or there on a C-130 is not a cost – it is an opportunity.

To finish, might I also make an observation or two about the focus on social media? Is it an important and growing area? Yes. But, equally, “old media” is far from dead, and specialist defence magazines (and their websites) have global reach to audiences that the MoD’s social media might not well reach. On the same level, the dwell time of specialist defence magazines is good – people keep referring back to Defense News or Janes weeks and months later, because of the quality of the articles. I haven’t yet seen what the Twitter equivalent of “today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper”.

I am not saying that the Army should ignore social media – I am arguing that the Army’s communication/engagement strategy should not be a One Trick Pony. Rather, it needs to be like the golf bag, and have a variety of clubs to call upon. Which would mean newspapers (national, local), magazines (specialist, feature), electronic (TV news, documentary, web), and social media. Time consuming? I’d say less than you’d think – this is what the Army used to do, as a matter of course.

How might I sum up what I am saying here? Communication/engagement requires being open, not closed; it understands that the default answer should be “yes”, rather than “why” or “no”.

I know that I write for a number of specialist defence journalists who wish you well, and issue you an invitation: if you would like a deeper briefing about some of the horror stories of Army comms over the last decade, and how we think they can be avoided in the future, we would gladly host you for lunch in Lon

Francis Tusa is a defence journalist of over 20 years' experience. Starting at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, covering both Middle East defence and European defence topics, he branched out as a freelance writer on a wide range of defence and security matters. He has written for the Guardian, Times, Financial Times, Middle East Economic Digest, as well as for specialist defence publications including Defense News .

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