The Warrior Prince and the reporters
Harry's presence in Afghanistan provided the Army with an extraordinary PR opportunity. James Shelley, director of news at the Ministry of Defence, tells Chris Green how he managed a delicate story
Monday 10 March 2008
"From our perspective, the media blackout was complete common sense: we went into this with our eyes open, and so did the media. The previous strategy of announcing everything openly in Parliament had led to circumstances where it all fell through. It was obvious that if we were to be successful, we'd have to do something quite fundamentally different: that was why we took the decision to start engaging with the media very early. Throughout the operation I worked hand in glove with Colonel Ben Bathurst, the assistant director of PR for the Army, and Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors. We split the work into three areas: pre-deployment, during deployment and post-deployment.
In July we called a meeting for all of the national newspaper editors and television executives which we held at the Ministry of Defence's media suite. That collection of people knew more about news and the way news is driven than I could ever hope to, but they didn't raise anything we hadn't already thought about. At the initial meeting there was quite a lot of scepticism about whether or not we could maintain a blackout, and we also had to reassure them that we weren't trying to pull a fast one. But the more engagement we had with the media the more we were able to deal with the issues they raised, and as the months progressed there started to be a real sense of confidence in what we were doing. We also learnt a lot from them, and from the Clarence House team: they had already managed a media blackout when Prince William went to St Andrews, although that didn't really compare to this in terms of scale or complexity. I know it sounds like a paradox, but the operation wasn't about Prince Harry per se – it was about the safe and successful deployment of a soldier.
Some people might say that having an agreement that nobody signed was old-fashioned, but I'd disagree. I'd actually argue it was quite forward-thinking. We were aware of the threat that the story might get out, but to a degree the whole thing was self-policing, because nobody would want to be the one to break it. The criticism that would've been levelled at them would have been extreme. But if they really wanted to, I wouldn't have been able to stop them: the whole understanding was always reliant on editorial compliance. The bottom line was: is it worth giving it a go? And everyone seemed to agree that it was, because at the end of the day it was really about the security of Prince Harry and those he was serving alongside.
We agreed to send a series of four-man teams to shadow Harry during his tour. The Press Association would cover the story for the print media, and each broadcasting company would rotate so they would all get a chance to do some filming. The first media pool left for Afghanistan on 28 December, after the Prince had done a pre-tour interview with the BBC. Then we started monitoring the internet for any signs of a leak. There was a lot of Googling going on, but with the internet it's almost impossible to get a cast-iron guarantee that there's nothing being done. We did enjoy the benefit of having journalists on our side, and knew they'd let us know if anything cropped up.
We always knew there was a chance that someone in the foreign media might run the story. And on Boxing Day, eight days after Harry had been deployed, I got a call from CNN, saying they knew that he was in Afghanistan and that they were planning to run a story on it. If they had, it would have been a catastrophe: but we just told them what our intention was and brought them into the understanding with everyone else. My working presumption was that of course people would talk. We knew that soldiers might ring their families and say 'you'll never believe who's out here'. But who would they take it to? I knew that if there was no outlet for the story, and if everyone held the line, we stood a good chance of maintaining the blackout.
The most challenging part of the whole thing was after the story was out. There were also some very surprised faces in the MoD press office, because only a few members of my team knew about the agreement before then: in fact, more members of the media knew about it than people in the MoD. We had to ensure that everyone got what they wanted out of it, from the broadsheets to the broadcasters to the big local papers. If just one of them felt that they hadn't got enough, the whole thing would've been a failure. So we were all forced to work flat out, making sure the correct embargoes were in place and generally getting very little sleep. It was like any story that generates hundreds of pages of newsprint and hundreds of hours of broadcast material: everyone felt like they owned a slice of it, and they all wanted their piece.
I think it would be possible to come to a similar arrangement with the media in the future. But I don't believe that this example should serve as a template for all other cases: it shows that we can work together, but every case is different, so we'll have to wait and see. It would be totally dependent on the specific circumstances at the time, and who knows what these might be next time? As before, we'd have to think very carefully about what we could deliver to the media.
How successful the whole thing was is really for others to gauge, but from our perspective we're just very pleased we managed it, and kept a lid on it for 10 weeks. PR and media relations are often looked down upon by the private sector, but I think we've shown them what we can do now. The MoD also gets kicked hard when it gets things wrong, but I don't think we got anything wrong here. We certainly had our critics, but in general I think most British people have accepted that it was the right thing to do."
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