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Practicing The Skills Of Being A Military Press Officer

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, June 28 (RFE/RL) -- The military officer addressing the crowded press conference was answering questions about planned maneuvers with other countries.

"Of course what we are going to do is still being discussed," he said. "But off the record, I can tell you I think this is what we might do ...... ."

Suddenly he stopped as a voice out of the audience said: "You cannot say that. You don't know and you should say you don't know. Don't guess !!"

Of course this was not a real press conference but a training program. The man on the podium was a press officer from the defense ministry of an East European country. The person who interrupted him was an American trained in public relations and dealing with the press.

It is one of a series of programs run by the U.S. military to train officers from the former Soviet union and Central Europe in the practical aspects of democracy.

Seminars take place at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies in the German alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

The one being held this week is intended to teach press officers from the military and the foreign office how to deal with an inquisitive media which is sometimes suspicious of the military.

The civilian leader of the seminar, John Rendon, says: "creating trust between the civilian society and the military is one of the corner stones of building democracy in Central Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union. In some of these countries people distrust the military because of the past. We are trying to teach the military how it can get its story across."

The emphasis of the seminar is on the fundamental things a good press officer should know : always tell the truth; if you don't know something, say you don't know but will try to find out.

One point which was constantly stressed was: if a mistake has been made, say so. Don't try to cover it up with half-truths because the facts will come out eventually and then the situation could be worse. Over and over again the point was stressed that the only way to build confidence with the press and the public was to tell the truth, however uncomfortable.

This week's terrorist bombing of a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia created a tragic focus for some of the points a military press officer or public relations officer should know.

Among them, was be careful of figures. Rendon read to one session a series of press, radio and television reports all of which had different figures for the number of dead and injured. It also enabled the speakers to go into the details of what sort of information could be released quickly and what should be held until officially confirmed, what could be told about the casualties before their next-of-kin were informed.

There were other points on how to respond to hostile and incorrect information carried by newspapers and other media, how to organize a background briefing on a sensitive subject.

The press officers also asked questions among themselves on how often their ministries held briefings; whether it was a good practice to have a regular briefing once or twice a month and how to distribute information.

Romania's representative, Major Valeriu Tones, talked about his ministry's policy of regular press briefings not only about domestic military affairs but also about the activities of the Romanian units in Bosnia and in Angola.

More than 40 people from 21 states took part in this week's seminar at the Marshall Center. Most are military press officers alt although some are from foreign ministries. Six were women, including two press officers from the Albanian Ministry of Defense; they had many questions about the practices in other East European countries.

Many of the other questions come from Yelan Bayzhanov of the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry and Uran Botobekov, chief of press services at the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry. .

One of Hungary's two representatives, Colonel Dezso Hajos, used the course to brush up his skills for an upcoming NATO exercise in Hungary as part of the Partnership for Peace program. It will involve 600 foreign troops and 50 aircraft. "No-one can tell what might come up," he said, "it always helps to listen to other people and learn how they handle a problem."

Belarus was unusual in that its two representatives come from opposite sides of the table. Vladimir Rudenko is head of the press service at the Ministry of Defense. The other is Roman Yakavlevski, editor of the weekly "Belarus Gazette" which is concerned with defense issues and a sharp critic of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. One hour-long session of this week's seminar was taken up with Yakavlevski's complaints about the way things are run in his country and Rudenko's responses.

The lecturers included William Harlow, a U.S. navy captain who is the deputy director of the information service of the American forces, Colonel Gilbert Hertoghe, who is chief of the information service of the Belgian armed forces, Colonel Horst Prayon, the commander of the Communications Academy of the German Armed Forces and Dr. Wolfgang Pucher, head of the press department at the Austrian defense ministry.

Officials from Slovenia and Latvia discussed their own experiences in dealing with media problems and answered questions from others.

A senior official at the Slovenian foreign ministry, Miss Blankams Jamnisek, attracted a lot of questions on the broader issue of how a small country gets its message not only into the local press but into the foreign media.

Part of her reply discussed how Slovenia produced a one-hour television program twice a month which was presented on various channels around the world. It also makes a continuous effort to provide a news or feature item for CNN and has its own Home Page on the Internet.

In the discussion which followed, U.S. officials told the East Europeans that smaller television stations in the U.S. were often looking for material which was not broadcast by the big networks and could be persuaded to buy TV programs with an interesting theme from Europe.

The seminar ended with a series of workshops putting into practice some of the issues discussed during the week. There was one on organizing and conducting a press conference, another on arranging media interviews and another on how to manage a media crisis, that is - how to respond to media reporting that is negative, both when it is true and when it is untrue.