Posted by: Ian Ross | January 15, 2008

Clarke struggles with transparency in recent book

In her recent book Lipstick on a Pig, Torie Clarke argues that transparency is king and spin is dead in the new age of public relations.

Drawing from two decades of PR experience in Washington – with particular attention to her time as communication advisor to US secretary of deference Don Rumsfeld — Clarke does a reasonable job explaining how an honest approach to communications can be successful. However she isn’t the straightest shooter when discussing her efforts to gain support for America’s military effort – creating a contradiction that is tough to shake.

On the positive side, she is a fan of two-way communication and provides several examples of when the media isn’t the right vehicle to create honest dialogue with key audiences. To connect with religious and other opinion leaders, she coordinated outreach meetings with top military officials. To reach youth in the Middle East, she discusses the importance of not just pushing the message out. One person’s advice to her, “It’s not good enough to explain yourself. You have to make sure people know you’re interested in them, in their lives and experiences.”

Clarke is also an advocate for strategic communications and pushed it with the military’s top brass during the early years of war with Iraq. “Approach communications as an add-on to your operations, and you will fail in the information era. Elevate communications, apply the same intense planning, resourcing, and measurements to it as to core operations, and you succeed.”

However for all the talk about transparency, Clarke seems to struggle with it.

On several occasions, she avoids discussing critical issues. Opinion polls have shown declining public support for the war in Iraq over the past five years; yet she never discusses them. Instead, she insists without proof that her communication strategy to gain public support was successful.

Then there is the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The American military provided false information and arguments to make its case for war. This was a clear case of spin – if not outright lies – and Clarke was right in the middle of it. Still, Clarke doesn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

She also tries to suggest that perspective and transparency are the same thing. It would have been nice for her to admit that soldiers become family/heroes to reporters when they are embedded in a battlefield. The military isn’t providing a transparent battlefield for reporters to roam anywhere and interview anyone. The military is providing reporters with a window to the war that is favourable.

So in the end, Clarke makes some good points about honesty and accuracy being key to successful PR; however she fails to demonstrate that she can present her experiences and arguments with true transparency.

Torie Clarke on the cover of her 2006 book

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