Pentagon enlists PR aid

Staff to counter any bad press through contact with 24-hour news outfits

Rummy may be out, but the Pentagon still has an image problem.

Just before the Nov. 7 midterm elections and the day-after resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon beefed up its public affairs office, aiming to make it an operation “akin to a political campaign war room,” the Associated Press reported.

The Pentagon might well have taken a cue from “The War Room,” D.A. Pennebaker‘s doc on the inner workings of Bill Clinton‘s 1992 presidential campaign. Among other things, the pic tracked the Clinton campaign’s “Rapid Response” team, which moved quickly to counter bad press.

Facing an ever-rising U.S. body count in Iraq and strong sentiment opposing the war, the Pentagon’s PR staff will look to “correct the record” via immediate salvos of messaging to the 24-hour news cycle.

One new section will focus on getting Pentagon officials booked onto news and public affairs shows. Another will be devoted to recruiting “surrogates” — sympathetic outsiders — to echo the Pentagon’s line on potentially negative developments.

Whether the effort can change hearts and minds may depend on the zen of PR.

“The key is to do it and not seem to be doing it,” says GOP pollster and communications whiz Frank Luntz. “If people see you’re acting, you’re a bad actor. If they see you messaging, you’ve got a bad message.”

First test of the new strategy likely will be how well it can frame incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a man with a “fresh perspective,” as President Bush put it.

Since Gates is an old D.C. hand, that may not be easy. But as James Carville, who figured prominently in “The War Room,” might say: It’s the spin, stupid.

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