Thursday, April 22, 2004

Limits of Control 

The Pentagon is learning the hard way the limits of control in the Internet era. It has tried to prevent photos being taken of coffins bringing dead soldiers home to the US. But a contractor took some anyway and released them on the Internet where they are being passed about quickly. The Pentagon fired the contractor but that makes little difference.

It is all useless attempts at control. The Web has torn down restrictions on imagery and the barriers will never rise again. The Pentagon is learning that lesson now.

But what does that tell the public relations counselor? Don't try to stop photos from being passed about. It will happen, even with grisly and emotionally devastating pictures. What one does is to prepare for the outcome of such images showing up on the Internet. There are several responses. One is to publicly deplore the use of the photos (and risk alerting everyone to their existence.) Another is to remain silent and hope they go away without much comment. A third is to sue and to demand they be removed from Web sites (which makes a high-interest case out of the photos.) A fourth is to attempt to punish the person(s) who took the photos or those who released them (a futile effort because others will pass the photos on.)

No option works well, especially if imagery is of high public interest. It is easy to get images into the ether with few or no fingerprints that identify who placed them there. The contractor was not intelligent about this and could have avoided repercussions.

PR still thinks about controlling messages. It should be thinking more about defending against them.


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