I commend Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for his recent decision to pull the plug on the newly formed Office of Strategic Influence. News reports claimed the Pentagon wanted OSI to mount an aggressive effort in the Islamic world to fight negative feelings about the war on terrorism. Critics were especially troubled by allegations that the campaign might include planting false news items to sway public opinion in favor of the US and erode support for Osama bin Laden.
I certainly don't have the same expertise in this field as the Rendon Group, a Washington-based consulting firm mentioned as one of the key players in the OSI game plan. But I do know that trying to manipulate information and control how the media react to it is an inexact science, and that the potential for unexpected results is not insignificant. A tiny incident from my brief public-relations career illustrates this point.
Years ago, I was hired to promote media coverage for public swimming pools operated by a local recreation department. My methodology was simple: make friends with news people at TV and radio stations, and reward them when my clients were mentioned on the air ("It was a scorcher today, and here's a look at some kids getting cool relief at the 4th Avenue pool!")
Sending candy to assignment-desk editors was my usual payoff. It's a quick and effective way to enhance journalistic relationships. After one spectacular weekend that included video segments from several pools, I was feeling confident enough to have some fun with my TV operatives. So I sent them bags of taffy and included a humorous note, which I was certain would get big laughs.
The note said, "This isn't salt-water taffy. It's a more sophisticated variety made with genuine swimming-pool water. It is cooked in a small kitchen by a retired pool maintenance man, using an old family recipe that's been handed down through four generations of pool service workers. Legend has it that if you close your eyes and hold your nose after the first bite, you can taste a hint of chlorine. Dive in and enjoy!"
You can guess what happened. Soon afterward, there was a message on my answering machine from one of the recipients, asking for the phone number of "the old guy who makes the taffy." A camera crew had been assigned to do a story about him next time he cooked up a batch. After an awkward explanation on my part, I immediately called another station and found out they had also taken the note seriously and had thrown the candy away. "It sounded really gross," I was informed, curtly.
Would my talent for creating spurious news items have been helpful to the Office of Strategic Influence? I'm glad we'll never find out. In the war against terrorism, we need to maintain a clear view of every policy and tactic. Spreading disinformation won't help. It only makes the political and diplomatic waters murkier.