Naval Academy Professor Speaks Out: How to Make a PR Disaster

Naval Academy professor of English Bruce Fleming writes about the Equality Ride and the Naval Academy’s reaction in a commentary that appeared on Military.com. View the article by clicking here.

How to Make a PR Disaster

by Bruce Fleming

The military has to do better at interacting with the civilian world than it usually does. (In another column I’ll consider the converse, which is true as well.) Typically the military says that things are a certain way just because it says they are, and then circles the wagons against the larger society questioning that decision. If the military’s policies are defensible, as they may well be, it should to be discussing and defending, not refusing to do either with the society the military exists to defend.

My home institution, USNA, recently provided a good example of how not to do it. The incident, which was Topic A on campus for almost a week, was related to the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) policy, the subject of an earlier column and hence on my mind. A group called Equality Ride announced it was going to come onto the Yard (as we call our base) to discuss the DADT policy, and to talk to midshipmen, officers, and faculty. Anyone can walk on with a picture ID, and we all talk to tourists.

The Academy should have seized the initiative and worked with Equality Ride to produce discussion. I bet the midshipmen would have even stayed awake for briefings on this subject.

Instead the Academy’s administration went into panic mode. The Washington Post quoted CAPT Helen F. Dunn (Chief of Staff): "Be advised that accessing the Academy grounds for the purpose of protesting or engaging midshipmen, faculty and staff, may subject you to arrest and prosecution." (The CAPT undoubtedly meant: "for the purpose of protesting or of engaging with midshipmen, faculty, and staff.")

Moreover, according to the Annapolis Capital , "Academy officials also prohibited reporters . . . from talking with midshipmen or academy faculty." So much for sharing information with the world the military is here to protect. Arrest someone for trying to talk to a civilian professor? Excuse me?

I’m sure the military thought the ensuing PR debacle was only another example of the liberal pointy-headed media taking swats at the military. But this wasn’t an example of gratuitous swats. This one the military did to itself, as it so often does.

Come the day of the protest itself, the panic had apparently subsided to some degree. The protesters were allowed in, as individuals, though they were still told by Dunn that they were not to "discuss gay rights with midshipmen" ( Annapolis Capital ). Why the terror at having midshipmen discuss things with civilians? The lame excuse offered was that our work would be disrupted. Midshipmen are perfectly capable of saying, "Sorry, I can’t talk. I have to be in class now." Was someone afraid that midshipmen would be corrupted by talking to the protesters? Should they disagree, the mids had as good a chance of convincing the protesters as the reverse, I’d say.

Not that USNA directives were even clear. Dunn’s initial e-mail had said to midshipmen: "we ask that you . . . stay clear of the protesters" and "politely refer questions from media or the demonstrators to the Public Affairs Office." The Academy’s Public Affairs Officer back-pedaled on this the next day, according to The Washington Post: "we were not telling them they could not talk to the protesters."

Really? Everybody in the military would understand an O-6 "asking" something as tantamount to an order. Many of the things people in the military do in fact anticipate an actual order — you figure out what the CO wants and find ways to give it to him or her. Clearly the Academy really, really didn’t want to talk about this one.

In any case they were too late, at least where my students were concerned. We’d already discussed the issue. In my plebe "Rhetoric and Introduction to Literature" the midshipmen learn to make coherent arguments and defend their positions. To the end of showing them how to do it, I have what I call a mini-speakers’ series, where I invite Academy grads (usually my former students) or other people with views on military issues to talk to them before we swing into the day’s Shakespeare (or whatever). We’ve had a SEAL, a LT(jg) serving in Bahrain, and an out-of-the-Navy nuke. One week we had Associate Professor Aaron Belkin of the University of California, who runs a think tank that supports research on DADT.

Dr. Belkin ran a very organized discussion, largely devoted to getting them to talk about their views. When I de-briefed with my students the next period, they were uniformly enthusiastic. "He was really fair," I heard. "It’s difficult to get people to talk rationally about something this crazy." "I wish he’d shared some of his views more," one woman said.

So my students were ready to talk about the Equality Ride people who arrived at our gates weeks later. They had ideas, they had views, they were articulate. Most of all, they were very interested. This was a policy that affected them. They’re going to have to deal with this issue one way or another as officers. Instead of letting them discuss with the protesters, which might have done some good in both directions, the Academy froze up, brought out the big guns, blamed those pesky civilians again, and in general produced a mess we didn’t need.

From the military’s point of view, getting civilians in line is like herding cats. But that’s only because the military hasn’t accepted that civilians think differently than the military does. Which means simply, they’re not going to get in line. So you have to be flexible and deal with them in terms they understand. That doesn’t include threatening to arrest them for talking.
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