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Yugoslavia: NATO's Shea Draws Lessons From Waging A Media War

An annual forum was held in Crans Montana, Switzerland, over the weekend with government and business leaders from around the world in attendance. At the gathering, a great deal of comment was offered about the recent Kosovo crisis. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker reports that among those offering their views was the man who led NATO's effort to present its side of the conflict to the world.

Crans Montana, Switzerland; 28 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For 11 weeks this spring, while NATO carried out its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, television viewers around the world became very familiar with the face and voice of NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.

It was his job, day after day, to explain NATO's targets and strategies in its bid to stop Belgrade's campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It was also his job to explain the seemingly senseless blunders -- the day NATO bombs struck a convoy of ethnic Albanians and killed dozens of people, or the fateful night NATO mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three people and altering the diplomatic complexion of the war.

With the bombing now over, Shea has taken some time to reflect on the relationship between spokesmen and the media.

He told the Crans Montana forum in Switzerland this weekend that NATO was ultimately successful in building public support for the war. He said this success came in spite of the media, which he said often focused on the mistakes and short-term costs while forgetting the longer-term objectives.

He says one reason for the success was that NATO was able to use a moral argument:

"At the end of the day, you cannot convince public opinion by simply trading facts: an atrocity here versus a piece of collateral damage there. What counts is to keep to the moral high ground."

He says every day he had to remind reporters of why NATO was bombing in the first place -- that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had refused to sign the Rambouillet peace accords, that his campaign of ethnic cleansing was anathema to human values at the end of the 20th century. Shea said by sticking to the moral high ground, NATO was able to lower the public relations impact when things went wrong. Shea also says NATO succeeded by learning the value of being truthful.

"We would never have been able to compete with Milosevic in propaganda. I submit, he's better in that than we are, much better. He's had 10 years more experience in that game and he does it extremely well. We [at NATO] are hopeless at propaganda. Even if we tried, it would not work for very long. Our approach is the truth, in being honest, admitting our mistakes. As in the case of the Chinese embassy, saying we got it wrong, we got it terribly, terribly wrong."

Shea says the convoy bombing incident in which NATO mistakenly killed dozens of innocent civilians provided the alliance with a good lesson in speaking the truth. He said the alliance hurt its own interests and confused the public by providing contradictory -- and ultimately false information -- initially in an effort to satisfy the media's desire for quick explanations.

"The important thing is to not add to the confusion. I accept that we, with that convoy incident, at NATO headquarters, made a mistake. Not so much in taking five days to clear [the story] up, but in giving conflicting stories at the beginning based on supposition. It's far better to say 'I don't know, but when I find out, I'll tell you.'"

Ultimately, Shea says NATO won the war and the propaganda battle as well by being consistent and determined. He says he learned over time his main task was to convince the media and the general public that in spite of the mistakes and short-term costs, NATO was not giving up the air campaign. He says once the media realized the alliance's resolve was unshaken, they stopped focusing on the blunders and started focusing on the larger picture.

He says this also convinced Milosevic that his battle was ultimately futile:

"Convincing Milosevic on CNN every day that we were not giving up and that our public opinion was supporting us was a vital factor in encouraging him, at the end of the day, to accept the conditions of the international community. Governments must pay the same attention to their media strategy as they would do to their military strategy."

Shea says the need to develop a media strategy was a major lesson of Operation Allied Force, the name given the NATO bombing campaign. He said it took NATO at least a month before it finally set up a serious media organization.

Shea also said that one unexpected lesson of the war was that it showed that newspapers are inferior to 24-hour news television in reaching public opinion.

"Now, we don't need newspapers. You can use TV because TV carries you without censorship, without commentary, with criticism, directly into the living rooms of public opinion. And I think that's a great advantage."

Shea credits NATO's media effort with not only forcing Milosevic to accept the demands of the international community, but also giving hope to the hundreds of the thousands of refugees and displaced persons.

He said Milosevic could not stop satellite transmission of the NATO briefings into Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania. He said many refugees considered the daily briefings to be their "lifeline to optimism."

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.