The University of Texas at Austin
  • Communication expert discusses Gen. McChrystal's resignation

    By Terry Hemeyer
    Terry Hemeyer
    Published: June 25, 2010

    Terry HemeyerIt didn’t have to happen, and he got what he deserved. I feel terrible for our country as we have lost one of the few competent people we have to carry out a tough war assignment.

    Gen. Stanley McChrystal flunked the basics of public communication and didn’t follow the rules and policies of his job when he and members of his staff made unflattering remarks about Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. He needed to keep his and his staff’s opinions to themselves, and didn’t he know “everything is on the record“?

    I can understand where McChrystal was coming from. Dealing with distant, detached, civilian leadership can be frustrating. I experienced it during my time in Vietnam and could make a case that we would have come out much better in that war without it. But, all of our concerns were taken up the chain of command (and rarely did someone listen).

    Hemeyer served in the Air Force during Vietnam, was selected for the rank of colonel and received the Bronze Star.

    During my Air Force days I started a program in the Pentagon to provide a media and public communication awareness seminar and training to every newly promoted General officer — just to prevent a McChrystal incident. Unfortunately the general didn’t get the training from the Army, or ignored it.

    Lessons to be learned — it’s not the media’s fault. Rolling Stone did their job and, obviously with today’s Internet, it spread world-wide instantly. Treat the media with respect, but know when to keep quiet. Also, and most important, every person in charge of an organization needs to be aware and trained on today’s instant and comprehensive media environment. Prevention is the key in crisis management and a firm understanding of knowing when and what to say, and when to shut up, is critical.


    Terry Hemeyer is a senior lecturer in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations in the College of Communication. He has appeared on the NBC Today Show, CBS’ 60 Minutes and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and more.

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      public relations tips said on July 15, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.
      He forgot the first three rules of crisis communications: apologise for the error, explain why it happened, outline what you are doing to make sure it does not happen again.
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      John said on July 12, 2010 at 1:41 p.m.
      Pity you didn't get a Legion of Merit when you retired. After your many years of service and selection for O6 you should have...just my two cents.
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      Terry Hemeyer said on July 11, 2010 at 6:42 p.m.
      Thanks to Nan Reid for correctly defining my "selected for colonel" reference. I was selected for the rank of colonel and 10 months later while waiting for my number to come up, I retired as a Lt. Colonel. When I retired I received the meritorious service medal and am still proud of every day I served my country.
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      Nan Reid said on July 9, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.
      The term "selected" in regards to Mr. Hemeyer's rank is correct. Apparently, he was selected for colonel, but never promoted. Which means he would have separated (either retired or resigned, I don't know which) as an O-5 or lieutenant colonel. It just means he left the Air Force before his line number came up; there’s no implied wrong-doing. It can take sometimes a year or more between the announcement of the promotion and the actual date of promotion and he might well have decided to separate during that time-frame. Hemeyer's also been the communication advisor for two presidents from both sides of the aisle. I have issues with people saying McChrystal "knew what he was doing and did it to retire," or words to that effect. If he had been fed up and simply wanted to retire, he would have done so, and not left in disgrace. Officers know they have checked their opinions at the door when they take their oath. The CiC is the CiC, whether you agree with his (or her) politics or not. And for someone to suggest that the generals just wanted to take control of the war is not only scary, but also shows a lack of understanding about the way the military is subordinate to civilian command in this country. It's written into the constitution that way and for very good reason. The lesson learned is that, as Mr. Hemeyer said, nothing is ever “off the record,” whether what you’re saying is true and possibly needs to be said, or not.
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      John said on July 9, 2010 at 2:39 a.m.
      Mr. Morgan, While I as a soldier appreciate your sensitivity to PTSD, mouthing off to the media regarding the incompetence of our nation's senior leadership is not one of the traditional symptoms. The Uniform Code of Military Justice has articles specifically defining proper behavior with respect to how officers speak about our country’s civilian leadership. Gen. McChrystal and his staff clearly disobeyed those policies. If the Rolling Stone story were published about a colonel or below speaking in such an inappropriate manner, it is likely they would have been court marshaled for conduct unbecoming of an officer as well as for breaking the UCMJ article dealing with respect for our civilian leadership. Having worked on a 4 Star staff myself, I cannot imagine that sort of behavior. A general officer in the U.S. Army is expected to maintain a certain level of decorum at all times. General McChrystal deserved what he got. Additionally, General McChrystal cannot "remain on active duty after therapy and a sabbatical." Every assignment for a general officer could be their last. By that, I mean that when the DoD/Congress confirm a general officer into a position, the GO receives a letter informing them that if they are not offered a follow-on assignment, they will be forced to retire. Removing Gen. McChrystal from his duty as the ISAF Commander and not offering him another command forces him into retirement.
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      Walter said on July 8, 2010 at 11:39 p.m.
      I believe Gen. McChrystal knew exactly what he was doing and it worked. His replacement has already announced that he will review the rules of engagement with the administration. McChrystal was tired of losing men because they had to wait until they were fired on before they could engage, leaving them as sitting ducks.
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      John Morgan said on July 8, 2010 at 12:59 p.m.
      When Gen. MacArthur was Chief of Staff he was instrumental in routing the U.S. Veterans from Washington, D.C. Although then Maj. Eisenhower was one of his staff aides, and disagreed with the policy, he kept it to himself. After General Patton disgraced himself for slapping a PTSD casualty, he was transferred to a bogus Corps to mask D-Day invasion plans, and later returned to combat command with distinction. Is it not possible that Gen. McChrystal was undergoing some powerful symptoms of PTSD? The Afghan war is a pressure cooker, and his subordinates had a responsibility to him to do some private, if respectful, cautionary warnings. Stan McChrystal is likely no different than any other soldier who craters to the pressure, and should be encouraged to remain on active duty after therapy and a sabbatical.
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      Martha Wong said on July 8, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.
      I think McChrystal knew what he was doing and so did Petraus. It was planned so the generals could take control and win the war. McChrystal reported to Petraus and I am sure Petraus knew what was happening. History will show that these two generals saved the U.S. from a president who wanted to pull out of the war ASAP.
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      K. Schnelle said on July 8, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.
      Karen, thank you. Well said.
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      Susan Poth said on July 8, 2010 at 11:04 a.m.
      I think anyone who has not said derogatory remarks about their boss is very rare. This was unfortunate as the General gave his all for our country. In my opinion, the President and Vice President are so far from knowing anything about war and strategies, and their ineptness is totally obvious to regular citizens like me. We need to keep good leaders active, not bury them. This is another loss for the USA. He should have been reprimanded, not removed.
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      Bill Strawn said on July 8, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.
      Thanks for putting in so well. As a former AF officer, many times I questioned my bosses', both military and civilian, actions, but only within the confines of the military, and shut up when decisions were made. If I disagreed with them, I could always walk away. Not sure what Mr. Thomas is agitated about. The military have a responsibility to question their civilian bosses, and to walk away when they think the civilians are wrong. (Just ask Gen. Shinseki.) If more general officers and the self-serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had stood up to Rumsfeld, we might have missed the whole Iraqi thing by just paying off the Thug of Baghdad.
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      Bill Walters said on July 8, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.
      Good assessment of an incident that certainly did not need to happen. However, it is naïve to believe that McChrystal is one of a very few who are competent enough to lead NATO forces in Afghanistan. I believe the military has many in the ranks who are well trained and prepared to assume leadership positions given the opportunity. We may not know their names but they are there. No one person is indispensable to the mission.
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      Karen said on July 8, 2010 at 10:02 a.m.
      Mr. Hemeyer, I agree with you. The release of Gen. McChrysal's interview with Rolling Stone magazine is "not the media's fault." However, since you yourself declare that in General McChrystal "we have lost one of the few competent people we have to carry out a tough war assignment" and knowing that McChrysal has devoted his career to protecting American's and our interests, as well as his troops, perhaps one should not so easily dismiss his actions as having "flunked the basics of public communication." A large part of McChystal's miliary strategy has been to prevent crisis through managing, both the troops and the U.S. relations with indigenous people. Each require careful communicating. Though Gen. McChrystal is not in the communications business per se, it does not take a telecomunications expert (no offense) to know that news travels the world at the speed of the Internet. So since Gen. McChrystal is an expert in military strategy let's consider WHY McChrystal would speak out, putting his reputation, his career and, dare we say, the country that he loves in possible peril. Perhaps McChrysal does have "a healthy respect for the media and knows when to keep quiet." Many countries, leaders and even the general populas have strategically spoken out to the media to wage a campaign because they know that media is just one more part of their arsenal. It's quick. It's easily accessible. Risky to use, to be sure, because it can expose your flank. Being in the communications business you undoubtable can deliniate numerous examples. So the question is: WHY DID General McChystal speak with Rolling Stone, a magazine with a known anti-war, anti-military bias? What strategic campaign does Gen. McChrystal deem so important to his overall mission that he would risk the fall out of pulling the media out of his arsenal? What is the message he is sending to us? And what is the outcome he hoped/hopes to achieve? If Gen. McChrystal is lacking in judgement, as some have suggested, perhaps it is in judging the immediate response his message would generate with the public. Surely he knows media is quick to communicate a message. But did he consider that the media's usual first response is to analyis the speaker's character AND rather slow to listen and consider the message. This is where the general left his flank. Well, I have some thoughts on this, but I am not in the business to tell people what to think - but TO THINK. There is nearly always more than one angle to a story. Consider the message of the general and think. Karen Montgomery
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      Dr. Radford Thomas said on July 8, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.
      Terry Hemeyer ought to keep his ideas to himself. Why do we have civilian checks on the military? Obviously so people like Hemeyer will not start WW III. Let the politicos do that. The real question is WHY are we in Iraq? Thanks, W.
    • Quote 2
      Tweets that mention Communication expert discusses Gen. McChrystal’s resignation « Know -- said on July 8, 2010 at 9:41 a.m.
      [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pierpont. Pierpont said: RT @klturner Comm Sr. Lecturer Terry Hemeyer comments on McChrystal on #UT's Know. - (cc @UTcomm) [...]
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      James Monaco said on July 8, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.
      This is speculation on my part. I believe the General knew the likely outcome. I think he was consciously fed up with the civilian decision-making and ready to retire. The war in Afghanistan has been conducted badly by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
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      Wayne Thompson said on July 8, 2010 at 9:29 a.m.
      Couldn't agree more. As an Army officer in the 1970s, one of the first lessons that every 2nd Lt. learned was that our political feelings were private and only to be shared within the chain of command. Gen. McChrystal forgot the basics - an American military officer serves at the pleasure of the President, and you don't criticize the Boss or his office in public. This was an incredibly stupid mistake for a senior general officer to make. No one could possibly be that naive. It almost looks like he was trying to find a way out of a tough command assignment.
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      Ken Crockett said on July 8, 2010 at 9:26 a.m.
      I marvel at the armchair generals who have rushed into the media to announce General McChrystal "got what he deserved." He didn't deserve collaboration with inept Vice President Biden. When McChrystal targeted blowhard Biden, he hit a bull's-eye.
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      Bill Reed said on July 8, 2010 at 9:21 a.m.
      As an aside, it was a strange characterizaton of Hemeyer's military servce, stating that he "was selected" for the rank of colonel, rather than "achieved," or "attained," or "earned." The original wording may be accurate, but it is unusual, and seems, in some ways, diminishing.
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      Minh Nguyen said on July 8, 2010 at 9:08 a.m.
      We need to learn how to express our opinion in constructive ways to benefit our society.
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      Wayne said on July 8, 2010 at 9:02 a.m.
      You clearly know that what he said does not fit a model general. So why does he now seem to have lost his compass? Here is my opinion: He knew exactly what he was doing. In his mind he was fed up with "Obama and Gang" and he is smart enough to know getting fired is a sure path to wealth and fame. Books to be written, policical parties and elections to influence and contribute to. This guy clearly has greater aspirations than most. As you said "when to shut up is critical," but when to speak up is even more important. There are people who sit around and wait for something to happen and there are people who make things happen. In the end I think we will see this guy involved in the election of a Republican president. Making things happen. In todays World it appears no one has an unexpressed thought or two.
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      Curtis Strong said on July 8, 2010 at 8:28 a.m.
      I understand your theory. But my problem with this is the lack of integrity by the media person. That is a very low person who will not honor the "hand shake." Is that the type of leadership in the media that we have degenerated to. No responsibility. Anything goes. Come on. This country can do better than that and these people need to be admonished also. I don't at all agree with your presenting that it is better to be dishonest than to respect McChrystal's wishes and ground.
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      Margaret Garcia said on July 8, 2010 at 8:26 a.m.
      After working in TV for almost 20 years I switched gears and became PIO for a government agency. I received great advice from the chairman of the board. He said, "I will never hold you accountable for what you say. I will, however, hold you accountable for what they said you said." Great advice from a great man. Too bad the general learned this lesson the hard way. A good journalist nevers turns off their mic.
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      Madelyn D'Olive said on July 8, 2010 at 7:35 a.m.
      I think perhaps General McChrystal was so frustrated with the "chain of command's" (polititians') refusal to take the advice of the military commanders on the ground that he spoke with Rolling Stone candidly and with the full knowledge that his remarks would lead to his resignation. With an administration that says it wants victory and then ties the hands of those who actually know how to achieve it, it's no surprise that progress is not made toward the goal. Of course I don't know that General McChrystal did what he did on purpose, but I can certainly understand it if he did!
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      Sonja Harris said on July 8, 2010 at 7:17 a.m.
      Your thoughts may be correct in that McChrystal should have "shut up" and as you allege that the Rolling Stone reporter was just doing his "job." At a critical time in the war in Afganistan I can only surmise that McChrystal knew exactly what he was doing and what the consequences might bring. Besides it is evident that Hastings' (reporter) mother never said to him "don't repeat everything you hear."
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      Matthew Ortiz said on July 8, 2010 at 7:08 a.m.
      It is a true that McChrystal made a huge error in saying those things in front of a reporter. If I remember the Rolling Stone article correctly though, they were flying on a plane together, not giving a planned interview. That does not change the fact that those things shouldn't have been said. At the same time, that article actually said very little against him. It was the rest of the media's secondary stories that went the distance. So, an article that was not an attack against him, was able to be used against him because of his slip(s) of the tongue. Why hasn't an issue also been made though about what this displays in the level of interference the civilian industries are able to leverage. I am not saying complete disregard from civilian oversight is necessary, Truman's ability to veto MacArthur's plan of using nuclear weapons against Korea was undoubtedly the right thing to do. It is fine to let the President have the ability to say 'no' to an extreme strategy. But, I see only strategic liability in having large numbers of civilians having the ability to complicate military activities. Clearly, the media is able to harm our military also in many more ways than what I had thought before. So, in all, I very much agree with you. He does seem to be one of the best generals we have had in a long time, so it's a shame it came to this. I am just left wondering why the bigger issues are ignored. Besides, a battle-hardened general called some other people wimps a bit elaborately. Well, they are wimps compared to him.
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      Charles Thrash said on July 8, 2010 at 4:27 a.m.
      If Mr. Hemeyer believes the President is "detached" from the military actions of the United States I would disagree. If he believes that LBJ and RMN were "detached" from the military actions in Southeast Asia, I again disagree. Americans should give serious thought to the implications of an increasingly political military. I would hardly be surprised to find the highest leadership of our vast military organization to be of a like mind with McChrystal. Presidents who strut around in military jackets and recklessly engage our nation in military operations across the world are their type of people -- those who do not are disdained.
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      Wanda Michaels said on June 25, 2010 at 11:41 p.m.
      very good commentary
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