Defence Minister Jason Kenney, right, shares a laugh with Admiral William Gortney, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, middle, and Commander Canadian Joint Operations Command Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, left, during the Conference of Defence Associations Institute conference on security and defence at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa on Thursday, February 19, 2015. Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS
There is a lot of excitement these days in the public affairs branch at National Defence headquarters about Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance and what senior officers are calling the “weaponization of public affairs.”
There are already different interpretations among public affairs officers about this new plan/terminology being attributed to Gen. Vance.
But the more common explanation provided to Defence Watch is this: There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed “friendly” to the military. Such leaks will consist mainly of “good news” stories or positive initiatives and the journalists will be required to heavily promote those.
Equally important, is the flip-side of this “weaponization” strategy. That is the targeting of journalists who are writing or broadcasting the stories that the CF/DND don’t want out in the public domain.
Journalists seen as “trouble-makers” are those producing stories about failed equipment purchases or uncovering details about severely injured soldiers not being treated properly or individuals being sexually harassed, etc., public affairs officers tell Defence Watch. In other words, reporters who are producing what the CF/DND views as negative or embarrassing news stories.
The “weaponization” aspect will come into play with phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc. – anything to undercut the credibility of such journalists in the eyes of readers and their employers, NDHQ public affairs sources say. Other tactics aimed at these journalists could also be developed.
But will this strategy work?
Vance isn’t the first to attempt to bring pesky journalists to heel.
It was quite common for officials working for then Defence Minister Peter MacKay to phone editors of various publications to complain about reporters. Such officials would make demands for immediate changes to headlines or question how the gaffe-prone MacKay was being portrayed in articles and broadcasts.
Officers working for Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk would suggest journalists produce highly positive articles about their boss or not write about certain embarrassing topics that angered him. Those topics included equipment procurement problems and the poor treatment of physically and mentally injured soldiers. The payoff? Guaranteed access to the general (i.e. more interviews with Natynczyk).
Some journalists faced other issues.
Defence Watch readers might recall that it was revealed in 2013 that Canadian Forces military police launched an investigation regarding CTV journalist Bob Fife.
Fife’s “crime” was that he had dug up embarrassing information about Natynczyk who in 2011 spent more than $1-million using government aircraft to jet to hockey games and to a Caribbean vacation spot.
Nothing ever came of the probe by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service. But critics saw the move as an intimidation tactic by the NIS against a journalist who was clearly not playing military cheerleader.
For sure, the “weaponization of public affairs” is certainly a catchy title.
But Vance’s “weapon” is arguably a little rusty.
These days DND/CF public affairs officers communicate with journalists mostly via emails. And those emails usually consist of pre-approved “talking points.”
Even such canned answers can take time to make their way to a reporter. It recently took DND public affairs a week to provide me with the current number of personnel in the military’s reserves.
UPDATE: Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance spoke to Defence Watch late Monday about his vision for the “weaponization of public affairs.”
He acknowledges this is a term he has used but believes his intention is being inadvertently misconstrued/misunderstood by some public affairs officers at NDHQ.
“It’s no surprise to me that there are those who would see weaponization as an aggressive, attack mode,” he explained.
But Vance tells Defence Watch that although his terminology might seem to indicate offensive operations against the media that is not his plan.
“I don’t consider it unfair you are reporting on it,” he explained. “In fact I’m happy you are. What I am taking about is operationalizing the public affairs branch. I want to make the public affairs branch better.”
Vance noted that the DND/CF public affairs team works hard but he is frustrated at a system that has been set up that often does not allow the Canadian Forces or DND to provide its viewpoints to the media and others.
“I want Defence to be a respected voice in the very important defence dialogue that goes on in the country,” Vance explained. “Sometimes I feel we lose that respect because we have incomplete information and not in a timely (way). We don’t do it on purpose.
Vance is now working on producing guidance for public affairs officers on what he wants.
“I was detecting our inability to answer questions in a timely manner and to be able to respond and deal effectively in a very dynamic and very fast paced information environment.”
“I don’t know whether there is a structural change that is required,” Vance noted. “Other nations have the ability to access subject matter experts and turn things around and get them back out.”