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Militias, Public Relations and OPSEC

I read an article today about a militia.  This post isn’t intended to demean them or any of their members, however, it’s a great case study from an Operations Security (OPSEC) perspective.  I’m not against militias (I’m also not in one), this is not an etymological argument, nor is it a legal one.  It’s obvious that security groups have served and will serve an important purpose again in this country.  These are solely my personal observations and there are five points I’d like to make.

1. Public Relations.  Organizations, whether they’re protest groups, militias, survival groups — whatever they are — always seem to do poorly when they don’t engage with the media.  On one hand, we all expect a liberal media outlet to twist words in interviews or make outrageous claims, and then once the furor is over and the page traffic dies down, quietly update the story to reflect what was really said or what was really meant (if you’re lucky).  You may do very well during an interview and feel like you’re getting your message out there, but after your interview is over, you lose control of the narrative.  Period.

One of the major takeaways from the Bundy Ranch standoff was that events like these need a strong public relations effort.  As far as that’s concerned, I applaud the Bundy Militia at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for holding press conferences and being generally open to the public and media.  They were able to dispel some misinformation and push their own narrative through both independent and national media.  Ammon Bundy’s updates have been sincere, heart-felt, salt-of-the-earth-kinda-guy displays and he’s done very well at expressing the reasoning of why they’re there (despite the best efforts of others on-scene).

On Sunday, the event was trending like a stand-off; at least that’s how the media and commentariat made it out.  But once Ammon Bundy began pushing his message of focusing on the Hammond Family and the thugs at the BLM, and Western land rights at large, more and more people understood that this was a protest, not a deathwish for Waco 2.0 (although there are still agenda-driven media outlets painting the Waco picture).  I was surprised at the objective views and articles published by even some national mainstream media outlets (local media reporting seemed much, much worse).  So this absolutely has to be Lesson #1: if you allow someone else to control the narrative, then your uphill fight gets steeper.  Don’t allow a media outlet to tell your story for you.  You must find someone capable of delivering your message and humanizing your efforts.  If you allow someone elses propaganda to dehumanize or vilify you, then killing you is more easily justified.

 

2. Identify Your Target Audience.  When doing media interviews or any type of public relations, you have an opportunity to reach people.  These folks are watching a video or reading an article because something about the topic or title piqued their interest.  The title may have been purposefully misleading — we call that ‘click bait’ — because most media outlets need advertising revenue, which means they need traffic, which means that they need to draw people to their site by hook or crook.  This is why we see article titles like the one below.  Does he look very “militant” to you?

Does he look very "militant" to you?

Now back to the target audience.  I’ll give you an example.  There was an article posted a few days ago that featured a state militia leader.  He did an interview with a local media outlet and the media outlet told not only his story, but also the story of the SPLC.  Net loss, if you ask me.

Before you start answering any questions, if you still choose to be interviewed by the liberal media, determine what audience you’re being exposed to, identify the profile of the person you want to reach (e.g., pissed off conservatives) and speak to them in terms that they’ll understand.  This is an opportunity to influence as much as it is to be a lightning rod, so weight those options.  Don’t be in the business of giving out free information just for publicity.  If you just want free publicity, then start uploading prank videos to Facebook.  Instead, use the opportunity to reach someone specific with your message and draw them to your side.

On my first deployment when I was screening detainees for intelligence value, I had an interpreter.  I never asked the interpreter a question and I never responded to the interpreter.  Why not?  He wasn’t my target audience.  I spoke directly to the detainee and looked at the detainee while he was speaking and while the interpreter was speaking.  The detainee was my target audience.  Take my advice for what it’s worth (or for what it cost you):  don’t waste time answering a reporter’s questions for the sake of satisfying his or her question.  Use the opportunity to answer the question by speaking directly to your target audience.  Always, always, always speak to your target audience.

Along the lines of discovering your target audience, if you’re going to cooperate with liberal media outlets, even just the local news crew, then consider just how deeply a market they have for your target audience (maybe you want to reach the socialists who read their articles, I don’t know).  If you’re contacted by a liberal media outlet, consider if you’d be better off contacting Breitbart or some other right-leaning media, who are more likely than the lefties to be aligned with your best interests and also have a wider exposure to the people you want to reach.  Email a reporter and tell him or her that you’ve been contacted by a media outlet (you could even forward the email), and say that you’d rather go on the record with them instead of the liberal media.  They may bite and it may be well worth the effort.  Then you can go do the interview with the local reporter and if they get something wrong, at least now you have the opportunity to force them to correct it.

I do want to share the absolute best part of this article, which was, of course, buried at the bottom.  Kudos to making this a part of the interview, however, it’s too bad that it wasn’t more prominently displayed.

“We are not different than you … we have jobs, families, we take the kids to the park and play with the dog. We don’t sit in our houses and plot a takeover of government. That’s ridiculous. But we do stand against a corrupt government.”

“Not a single unit that I associate with wants to overthrow the government,” he said. “We want government to do its job, to represent people and respect their rights as given to us in the Constitution and not alter it when they see fit and how they see fit.”

If you want to humanize yourself, say stuff like this.  Don’t talk about being heavily armed or how extreme your views are perceived — that stuff dehumanizes you.  Stick to the message that you want people to know about you.

 

3.  Arm Yourself with Marketable Knowledge.  In the same article referenced above, the SPLC provided numbers, whether they’re accurate or not, that are marketable.  That means that someone sees the numbers and the numbers do the talking.  Here’s the example:

.. the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 276 militia groups – up from 202 in 2014, a 37 percent increase.

The SPLC’s target audience are people who know nothing about militias and aren’t too sure about them in the first place, and these numbers just scare the shit out of these people.  The SPLC provided the media outlet with marketable information that sells the SPLC’s message.  On the other hand, this was the featured quote from the militia leader:

“Government is becoming increasingly oppressive…  People’s First Amendment rights are being squashed. Now they feel their Second Amendment rights are being squashed.”

How, man?!?!  How?!?!  Consider your target audience!  What specifics can you provide to market to the target audience?  Your target audience may inherently understand these things (or they may just want proof) but compared to the information the SPLC provided, the speaker looks more angry than he is informed.  If the speaker wants to recruit individuals to his militia, then he needs to provide a better message than just saying that the State is trampling on our rights.  That alone doesn’t make the target audience want to join a militia.  He should speak directly to his target audience — tell them, make your case about why joining the militia is in their best interest.  (Now if the speaker did provide specifics, aside from executive action, then it didn’t make the article.)

What are the benefits?  People look at a militia like a gang, and that’s all they see  — a bunch of white dudes who are probably racist and who drink beer and shoot guns in the woods.  We know that’s generally not the case, especially as more militias are becoming more professional.  Most people don’t actually know the benefits, so sell them on receiving medical and communications training.  Alleviate their fears of a militia by explaining what you do.  Focus on the benefits of joining.

Let’s look at another future Pulitzer award winner from the SPLC:

“We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government,” she said in a written statement.

The SPLC has been doing this for years.  They’re very good at it, they’re professionals, which is why militias or anyone else who speaks on the opposing side needs to get really good at it, too.

Not to beat a dead horse, but before you go into an interview, decide what message that you can market (they’re called ‘talking points’) and then look for ways to position yourself and market your solution to the target audience. This is what professionals do.

 

4. Using Military Terminology.  This is just a petty bone to pick, but I need to share it.  This is not a personal attack, however, when a person is quoted in the media and says this, military guys go, “WTF????”

“[the militia] is based all over the state, with 15 battalions and an approximate statewide membership of about 400 people, both men and women.”

There are 15 battalions but only 400 people? That’s barely one battalion. Sounds like there are 15 detachments or companies-minus, and the state has a battalion-minus.  As long as anyone is going to use military terminology in the militias, you may as well use the corresponding unit sizes for the terminology you’re using, but that’s been covered in many other places far better than on this blog.

 

5. Security-Minded Public Relations.  As much as there is a need to cooperate with media, there are still times when you have to be judicious in your approach to giving out information.

A major part of Operations Security, or OPSEC as it’s called, is determining your critical information.  That critical information, if leaked or otherwise discovered by an adversary, endangers your mission.  Your mission may be recruiting, training, planning or conducting an operation, and therefore you need to protect mission critical information.

Now I get it — 100%, I get it — the willingness to be completely open and transparent.  After all, in this climate, if you have something to hide then you must be guilty.  I can appreciate that. Most of us — the overwhelming majority of us, myself included — don’t condone wanton violence.  We’re just not in a rush to turn our cities into Baghdad and Kandahar and go through that again.  If that’s you, make that clear.

But another part of the OPSEC planning process is not just near-term but also long-term, which is why I was absolutely astonished that the following was written:

“[He] estimates that there are hundreds of smaller groups – “underground groups” across the state, ranging in size from small units of three to five men to larger groups.”

Why, why, why would you ever cop to this?  Look, I get it.  Some reporters are very good at their jobs.  They will impress you with some knowledge, stroke your ego and then play dumb, hoping that their rapport and puppy dog eyes will get you to open up and say things that you probably shouldn’t be saying… like what was said above.  They play on your willingness to play nice and be helpful, but back at the news desk, they’re getting a gold star sticker from their editor.

By saying things like this, all you’re doing is further justifying the existence of DHS.  And it might be used to get a federal grant to build a new wing on the Fusion Center with your name on it.  Guys, this is just not good PR, from a security standpoint.  Do you want more negative attention or less of it?  And by saying this out right, you’re also confirming some analyst’s intelligence requirement that reads, “Are there underground or clandestine extremist groups in the state?”  Done.  Push it to green and check that one off.

There are just some things that you shouldn’t say because now the local yokels are going to look less at dudes named Mohammad and Habib and look more at guys named John and Donald.  I just wouldn’t recommend saying anything like this, and that’s my two cents.  Thanks for reading.

5 Comments

  1. First Sergeant says:

    The Imperial Government, both Wings, of our Socialist Party, have perfected the art of public relations, distortion, obfuscation, and “spinning” the news.

    The Military has 15,000, one Divisions worth of PR, personnel.

    Excellent article and sound advice.

    I agree with Sam, pick your message outlet carefully, and think before you speak.

    Don’t appear aggressive. Remain calm and do not allow yourself to be “baited.”

    Always try to avoid any indication of the desire to overthrow the government.

    Strongly argue that we support the “Rights of the People” via the document signed by our founding fathers

    Good read.

  2. Rommel says:

    Well put. Very educational. Our understanding starts out at a base level and through education expands to, in this case, a higher level of thought. As individuals, we have to learn to focus on what we believe to be true and then present that in a fashion that is clear and concise. Sam, First Sargent, Max, Bill Buppert, John Mosby, thanks for your contributions in todays envirnoment.

  3. tango says:

    Solid read, great advice.

  4. Bruce says:

    Mr. Culper, I have tried to read a lot and cross check all I read. Your advice is some of the most solid that I have encountered. All believers in the USA and our Constitution need to look at the advice you have given. I view much of it through the window of some advice I received second hand from an attorney. When in contact with Law Enforcement, the story to relate went something like this, “I have nothing to say, am I free to go”? This is not the same scenario but the responce is based, I’m told, on the fact that everyone has a story to tell and the more guilt there is the more that story seems to want to be told. By being direct and planning ahead (using the KISS principal) and carefully choosing our words, we will be more effective. I hope you present more information on this and similar topics. We, the People, are already in a serious battle and careful choice of words is a more acceptable approach than some of the more hands on type of weapons, at this time. I hope I have stated my case in a way that follows your suggestions. This is NOT an easy thing to do but much more effective over time.

  5. Tater says:

    Where are Stewart Rhodes and the rest of the oft vaunted “Oathkeepers”? Not a peep from them since the drone video showing Lavoy Finicum’s cold-blooded murder at the hands of their “brothers” was released. Why have they not been publicly and vociferously leading the charge to have those responsible for Finicum’s death brought to justice (hung by the neck until dead)? I’ll tell you where they are; they are hiding behind that damned “thin blue line”. “Oathkeepers” my ass! Come on Stewie, grow a spine and prove me wrong!

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