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McChrystal’s Defeat: Poor PR, or Natural Disaster?

The term “PR disaster” is thrown around a lot these days. But unlike man-made catastrophes that wreak Gulf-spill-sized reputation damage, the McChrystal debacle is a direct result of poor PR. After all, it was the clumsy handling of an ill-advised press interview that lost the reputation war and the General his job this week.

Or was it? The comments attributed to McChrystal and his aides in the famous Rolling Stone interview have PR pros puzzling over how the media-savvy General and his team could have been so openly disrespectful of their administration bosses. Did they think they were off the record? Could PR consultant Duncan Boothby’s tradecraft really have been so poor? Or, as some have speculated, did the General commit a form of professional hari-kari on principle?

We may never know, but here’s my theory. I think McChrystal’s team meant to enhance his position on the war, and his outspoken, hypermasculine image, by offering a little color to reporter Michael Hastings on background. The aides leak a little information on the condition they’re not identified as a source. When McChrystal’s asked about it, he takes the high road. Maybe he comes out with a nice, boring quote about how “we all share the same dedication to the mission,” etc. He’s on the record denying or avoiding it, but his view still finds its way into the story. Pretty standard stuff.

But, that’s not how it worked this time. It seems that both the General and his team got sloppy and went too far. They allowed Hastings way too much access, let their hair down, and forgot to protect the boss. Given his history of speaking his mind, maybe the General was willing to take a small risk with one or two of his comments. But when he approved his own quotes, he didn’t anticipate the tone of the attributed comments.

So, how did they get so careless? How did Hastings win their trust? The media eruption might have been caused by another volcanic event…a real one.  Hastings was originally meant to have spent two days interviewing McChrystal while he was in Paris to meet with NATO allies. But, the Eyjafjallajökul ash cloud left the group stranded for ten days, which grew to a month when they shipped back to Afghanistan. Hastings was essentially embedded with the General’s team, the days went by, alcohol was involved… we can guess the rest.

Talk about disasters. I actually believe the volcano explanation; it’s the only thing that makes sense. If true, the ash cloud story gives literal meaning to the term “PR blowback,” and to a stellar career going up in smoke.

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