Military Crisis Communications: It’s Credibility, Sailor!

Some unidentified submergible vehicle being spotted somewhere near your coast is a crisis. This is especially true for Sweden. The Scandinavian country has quite a history of such sightings and the resulting “Hunts for Red October”. But unlike Sean Connery in the iconic movie inspired by Tom Clancy’s Cold War novel, these submarines’ commanders have never really been eager to have a midnight chat with some foreign naval officers in romantic moonlight. As a result there has been a lot of cat-and-mouse game going on in the days of the East-West conflict. More often than not the Swedish were outsmarted by Soviet skippers. Justified or not, this resulted in some extensive mocking regarding the Scandinavian’s ability to defend their waters and damaged the Swedish Navy’s reputation.

 

Patrick Meschenmoser (Frankfurt am Main)

 

The HMS Visby (here patrolling on a Swedish river in 2013) was among the vessels that led tha new "Hunt for Red October". Photo: Magnus Häggström/Flickr
The HMS Visby (here patrolling on a Swedish river in 2013) was among the vessels that led tha new "Hunt for Red October". Photo: Magnus Häggström/Flickr

Given that anamnesis it is understandable that the military was very eager not to expose itself too much when there emerged reports about some submerged foreign vehicle in Swedish waters again. From a crisis communications point of view the best approach to avoid your reputation going down the drain is to establish yourself as a credible source of information. Some would argue that it is not that easy to communicate transparently when many related aspects are top secret for political or operational reasons like it is usually the case with military issues. Granted. And everyone understands that there are things you can’t disclose. Ok, just say so. But when you communicate - for example by issuing some Loch-Ness-like pictures to convince the world that those foreign forces operating within eyeshot of your capital are not products of a looney mind – your communication has to be flawless and definitely not staged.

 

But this is exactly what the Swedish did. During a press conference they presented a map indicating locations where the unidentified vehicle had been spotted. They also published a grainy picture of it that was said to be taken at a specific location. Journalists that tried to match that picture with the indicated location found these information to be false. A naval spokesman later told the press that this misinformation had been published not to aid a foreign power. Bad choice. Even though this time professional journalists revealed the stunt, in times of almost unlimited online access to picture databases and maps and with millions and millions of well-connected social media users following such events, it is just a matter of time that this kind of manipulation will be revealed. As a result the most important asset in crisis communications is heavily damaged: credibility. And there goes your reputation. Of course Russian media like RIA Novosti picked that story up immediately.

 

The funny thing is: Of course journalists always pressure authorities to disclose as much information as possible. But everyone would have understood if the Swedish said: “Here is the picture, this is what it looks like, but we ask for your understanding that we can’t disclose any details not to jeopardize ongoing operations.” Even though there might still be some kind of Cold War trauma attached to such events, the military has to realize, that the world has turned since the days of the bipolar system. Especially when it comes to communication.

 

Lessons learned:

 

- Establish yourself as a credible source of information.

- If you can’t go into details, say so. Don’t make something up.

- In times of a 24/7 crowd-sourced surveillance linked via social media, such kind of stunts have become even more risky than before and usually lead to a disaster.

- Some still need to adapt their communications playbooks to the new media world.