McChrystal Clear: Basic Media Training

McChrystal by John Cass

Duncan Christy is a colleague of mine, he is an editor of great experience, and he was inspired to write this article about media training from his years of experience as a journalist and the McChrystal story. He kindly let me republish the article here on PR Communications Blog:


This exchange occurs very near the beginning of reporter Michael Hastings’ profile of General Stanley McChrystal in a recent issue of Rolling Stone:

“I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.

He pauses a beat.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”

With that, he’s out the door.

“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I ask one of his aides.

“Some French minister,” the aide tells me. “It’s fucking gay.”

And with that we are off to the races of one of the most colossal misfires in the history of a subject cooperating with an interview. A disaster that cost an otherwise admired career officer his career and was a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration, which had selected him specifically to lead a successful “surge” in embattled Afghanistan.

What happened? And, more to the point, how can you avoid this ever happening to you should you be a public person or a person speaking publically?

McChrystal: On the Record

First, this writer must ask and still incredulously: What did the military think it was getting when it permitted apparently unlimited access to McChrystal and his staff to Rolling Stone magazine? That is, permitted access to a magazine which has distinguished itself during its four-decade history as aggressively anti-military even while being fiercely journalistic? The temptation in the aftermath of the debacle is to believe some of the dark mutterings which followed that some or even much of the commentary was “off the record.” However, there’s been no persistence to those claims. And examining the story will show objective readers that, in fact, it is a well-reported, thoroughly reported piece of magazine journalism that simply lets General McChrystal shoot himself in the foot and every other appendage he could locate with a loaded weapon.

McChrystal: The Lessons

What lessons are there to take away?

  1. As apparently General McChrystal didn’t or wouldn’t, remember when you are speaking to the press that you are speaking to the press. Obvious? Maybe not enough. If you are offered an interview opportunity that may seem attractive to your business efforts, do your homework. What is the publishing organ? Is it Time or is it That is, is it an organization which endeavors to be fair and objective and has a reputation to match? Or is it a shoot-from-the-hip medium which is only concerned about titillating its readers/viewers?
  2. Then, who is the writer? Ask for published work if it’s available so that you may review the writer’s credentials and orientations. What you are doing is protecting yourself. But what you are also doing is impressing the writer that you did your own homework, and that you cared enough about the dialogue to familiarize yourself with the writer’s work.
  3. And of this, remember: Writers are people, too, with egos. If you liked something the writer wrote, say so. It’s a great ice-breaker.
  4. Then, in an interview setting, measure your words. You’re not going to lose your job if you say too little. But you might, like Stanley McChrystal, lose your job if you say too much. If you hear your mind caution you about a comment or revelation you might be about to make, think a couple of homely maxims: “Better safe than sorry.” And/or “When in doubt, leave it out.”

McChrystal: The Reporter’s Mission

A good reporter isn’t there to “get” you. A good reporter is there to get a story, though. I’m sure it came as a rather immense surprise to Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone to hear what he was hearing with all its crudeness and its candor. And I’m sure it came as an equally immense surprise – probably deliciously so, frankly – to find himself in this setting along with McChrystal’s most senior staff, nicknamed “Team America”:

By midnight at Kitty O’Shea’s, much of Team America is completely shitfaced. Two officers do an Irish jig mixed with steps from a traditional Afghan wedding dance, while McChrystal’s top advisers lock arms and sing a slurred song of their own invention. “Afghanistan!” they bellow. “Afghanistan!” They call it their Afghanistan song.

McChrystal steps away from the circle, observing his team. “All these men,” he tells me. “I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.”

What I know I’d have been thinking was, “Merry Christmas to me and to my magazine,” while I merely recorded the comments and shenanigans of an out-of-control bunch of subjects, and thought about the profile I’d eventually be creating.

What I know I’d have been thinking was, “Merry Christmas to me and to my magazine,” while I merely recorded the comments and shenanigans of an out-of-control bunch of subjects, and thought happily about the profile I’d eventually be creating.

General Rules

Yes, this is an extreme example. Few executives are likely to be interviewed or observed with the same levels of importance and urgency at stake. But the principles are exactly the same. When you are speaking to the press, you are speaking to the press. You may think you’re speaking to the public, and in some key senses you are and will be. But your remarks are simply part of the story that a reporter is going to be creating. The reporter is both the lens and the conduit. Do your part intelligently, for that is all you can do. A good reporter will respect that, and the eventual piece should reflect that.

As a postscript, General McChrystal recently retired during what was described as a moving ceremony. Although held in brutal Washington summer heat, nevertheless, at least 300 fellow officers and friends attended. According to The Washington Post, which covered the event, General McChrystal was quoted as mock-humorously threatening his listeners: “I have stories on all of you, photos on all of you.” And then there was this punchline: “And I know a Rolling Stone reporter.”