The role of public relations in the military
Oct 1, 2011

The role of public relations in the military

One of Canada's top military figures, Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk has gotten media attention recently since it was revealed that he spent over a million dollars on government aircraft to fly to such things as "Military Appreciation Nights" at NHL and CFL games. In addition, money was seemingly egregiously spent on such things as vacations and flying to fundraisers where the $80,000 flight was a large portion of the money raised.

One issue in this story is simply one of government waste - corroborated by similar revelations about the enormous sums being spent by Defense Minister Peter Mackay on government aircraft. One might look at the large range of commercial flights between Ottawa and Toronto, say, and wonder how such expenditures could be justified to make it to the Blue Jays game. The other issue raised is a broader question about the role and scope of the military engaging in public relations.

Take, for instance, the Toronto Air Show which I attended. One of the acts was the HMCS Shawinigan which attended the show as part of an expanded, semi-annual, five week long public relations tour of the Great Lakes along with sister ship Summerside and the frigate HMCS Montreal. According to the DND, the Great Lakes Deployment " is an opportunity to tell Canadians about the important role the Navy plays both in protecting our sovereignty and in providing security and humanitarian assistance around the world".

The corner stone of our democracy is the unquestioned civilian control of our military. This fundamental relationship was hard fought for, cannot be taken for granted, and the lack of it in many third world countries remains among the largest problems facing our world. In order to have this relationship, transparency, accountability and civilian knowledge and understanding of the military is imperative.

There is thus a limit to my criticisms. I think the military should engage the public and conversely that the public should take opportunities to get informed about the military. That is worth some cost to the taxpayers. I also don't have a problem with recruitment campaigns, which is one of the functions of the above mentioned Great Lakes deployment. The military needs employees and can advertise for that if necessary just like any other business.

What I have a problem with is what seems to be egregious advertising for the existence of the military itself. It is the notion of trying to indue positive support and sentiment toward the military; in essence, a government department advertising for its own existence. Canadians ought not to be "told" of the important role of the military, Canadians should tell the military what its role ought to be. We should not be sold the idea of the military and induced to support it on the back of its public relations campaigns.

With the possible exception of Harper's ubiquitous 'Action Plan' signage during the stimulus spending, what other department could get away with sending a billion dollar (literally) piece of equipment around on an advertising campaign? Not to mention that it is somewhat diminishing to tell us of all the grand purposes of the (recently rebranded) Royal Canadian Navy while it is spending so much money on a far more less grandiose enterprise.

It is no secret that I think the Canadian military - and indeed most militaries in the west, particularly the US - are too large, spend enormous amounts of money on things that don't even advance their claimed geostrategic interests, and take actions I disagree with. Further, I maintain that there are numerous institutional pressures between the government and the media that serve to supress criticism of the military. Given that context, the kind of top down, exclusively positive, public relations campaign from the military to the people serves a distinct role in the continuation of the status quo. That basic function of the military and public relations campaigns is one echoed by Orwell or North Korea and differs from here mainly by matter of degree.

As a final note, at the Toronto Air Show the Snow Birds also performed. It is fine for the government to spend a certain amount of money on culture works that build national identity; things like the Olympics or fireworks on Canada day are a priori acceptable. There is some extent to which such things overlap with the narrative above, but I think largely it becomes a question of a cost-benefit analysis on the specific program.

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