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CONFLICT RESOLUTION: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AIR FORCE
PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND LEGAL FUNCTIONS
JAMES WILLIAM LAW
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS IN MASS COMMUNICATION
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
This research is dedicated to Virginia Pribyla-the most professional public affairs
officer and military member I know. Her ideas, feedback, encouragement and support
made this study possible.
Many people contributed to this research. I am grateful to the public affairs
officers, judge advocates and commanders who took time to share their thoughts on this
important issue. I am also appreciative of those on the Secretary of the Air Force's public
affairs staff who provided assistance and "went to bat" for me to ensure I could field my
survey. The support I received from my chair, Dr. Linda Hon, was outstanding-her
candid feedback, attention to detail, and encouragement let me concentrate on the most
important task, conducting the study. The unique legal qualifications of Dr. Sandra
Chance and the crises communication expertise of Dr. Gail Baker Woods were especially
helpful in providing the correct perspective on this topic. Finally, I thank my wife, Cheryl,
who was always there to proof my materials, listen to my frustrations and keep me
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .................................................................................................. iii
A B S T R A C T ....................................................................................................................... v i
1 IN T R O D U C T IO N ................................................. ............................................... 1
2 R E V IEW O F LITER A TU R E ........................................... ......................... .............. 7
Definition of Terms ................................................... ....................... 7
C conflict Theory-A n O verview ....................................... ........................ .............. 7
Public R relations vs. L egal C counsel ......................................................... .............. 12
The Relationship Between Public Relations Practitioners and Lawyers.................. 32
Finding C om m on G round ................................................................... .............. 37
S u m m ary ..................................................................................................................... 4 4
Research Questions .......................................... ............................ 45
3 M ATERIALS AND M ETHOD S ....................... ................................................ 47
R research D design and Sam pling.................................. ....................... .............. 47
Survey Instrum ents ......... ... ................... .......... ...................................... 50
C oding and D ata A analysis .................................................................... .............. 51
R e sp o n se R ate ............................................................................................................. 5 3
4 F IN D IN G S ................................................................................................................ .. 5 6
G general Inform ation ............................................................. .. .... .... ........ ........... 56
Frequency and Characteristics of Conflict .............................................. .............. 59
H ow Conflict Is U usually Resolved .................................................... ................ 64
How To Decrease Conflict or Better Resolve Conflict......................................... 66
P ost H oc A analysis .............. .............. ......................................................... .... 76
5 SUM M ARY AND CONCLUSION S...................................................... .............. 78
D isc u ssio n ................................................................................................................... 7 8
Research Contributions for Mass Communications.............................................. 86
Research Limitations and Opportunities for Future Research .................................... 87
A SAMPLE ELECTRONIC MAIL TO SURVEY RECIPIENTS.............................. 90
B SAMPLE REMINDER ELECTRONIC MAIL TO SURVEY RECIPIENTS............ 91
C SU R V EY Q U E STIO N N A IRE S.................................................................................. 92
D SAMPLE SURVEY RESPONSE ................................. 103
REFERENCES ....................................................... ............................ 104
BIOGRAPH ICAL SKETCH ................................................................. .............. 109
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Mass Communication
CONFLICT RESOLUTION: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AIR FORCE
PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND LEGAL FUNCTIONS
James William Law
Chair: Linda Hon
Major Department: College of Journalism and Communications
The literature regarding the relationship between public relations practitioners and
lawyers indicates that a balance between the two is the best way for an organization to
survive or prevent a crisis. However, legal counsel is taken more often over public
relations counsel, which can be fatal in the court of public opinion. Researchers suggest
that interdisciplinary education and better communication and planning between lawyers
and communicators will create a better balance between the two functions.
This research examines the relationship between Air Force public affairs and legal
functions to find out what conflict exists, how often it occurs, how it is resolved, what the
results are for the Air Force as a whole, and what can be done to improve the relationship.
The study is based on conflict resolution theory and examines the relationship in terms of
win-win, win-lose and lose-lose scenarios. An on-line survey was conducted of 790 Air
Force public affairs officers, lawyers and commanders using electronic mail and a web-
based form. The researcher received approximately 250 responses (31%).
The data indicate that, while Air Force lawyers and communicators usually work
well together, conflicts between the two do occur for a variety of reasons: differing
objectives; the balance between the "right of the people to know" and the government's or
an individual's right to privacy and fair legal proceedings; an information-hungry media
environment; defense attorneys who use the media to plead their case, government rules
which muzzle the Air Force from telling its side of a story; and a lack of education and/or
training of public affairs officers and judge advocates. Respondents indicated that
conflicts between the two are usually resolved in a win-win result for the two parties
approximately half of the time, and that the legal course of action is taken much more
often than the public affairs course of action. The data further show that the Air Force as
a whole only experiences a win-win result approximately 30% of the time following a
conflict between public affairs and legal functions, indicating that leaders may need to give
greater heed to public affairs counsel if they want the service to be successful in both the
court of public opinion and courts of law.
Based on his analysis of the data, the researcher recommends continued
interdisciplinary education of public affairs officers, judge advocates, and commanders
regarding balancing legal and public affairs issues; more joint planning between the two
functions; more communicating and sharing of information; clarification of the rules
regarding the release of information during courts martial, investigations and other high-
visibility legal crises; and more emphasis on what is in the best interest of the Air Force.
There is growing concern among U.S. Air Force communicators and lawyers
regarding the relationship between the two disciplines, especially during crisis situations.
The Air Force's former Director of Public Affairs has described the alliance between the
two as "a complex relationship between two member of the same team," and another
senior Air Force public affairs officer admits that "whether at Air Force headquarters or in
the field, we often experience a conflict of perspectives when lawyers and public affairs
officers advise senior leaders during crises."2 Recognizing this, the researcher examined
the relationship between Air Force legal and public affairs functions by gathering data to
determine what conflict exists, how often it occurs, how it is usually resolved, its overall
effects on the Air Force, and how the relationship between the two functions can be
Examining this relationship is important because there is evidence to suggest that
the actual number of crises faced by organizations is rising. A study conducted by the
Institute for Crisis Management showed that the first six months of 1996 saw a 13%
1 Sconyers, Ronald, U.S. Air Force Director of Public Affairs, Memorandum to The Air
Force Judge Advocate General, 22 Oct. 1997.
2 Tyrell, Terry, Chief of Strategic Planning, Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public
Affairs, personal email, 11 Apr. 1997.
increase in the number of business crises.3 Although white-collar crime, corporate
mismanagement and labor disputes made up nearly half of the crises studied by the
Institute, sexual harassment was the fastest growing crisis category, jumping 192% during
the same time period.
One researcher attributes the jump in the number of crises to increased interest
from the mass media and to an increase in the number of lawsuits filed against companies,
factors which are naturally of great concern to both lawyers and communicators.4 And in
today's environment, says one crisis communication scholar, "So many crises are created
by lawsuits there is a growing need for lawyers and PR folks to work together."5
Another reason why the relationship between lawyers and public relations
practitioners is so important during a crisis is the time factor. Executives are under
tremendous pressure at the onset of a crisis and what little time there is "shouldn't be
wasted in bickering between lawyers and public relations people."6 From an Air Force
perspective, crises can impact commanders' options, service members' reputations, and
3 "Crises Up Slightly in First Half of'96," Inside PR, 12 Aug. 1996
(http://www.register.com/prcentral/ ipraug 12crisis. htm)
4 Pinsdorf, Marion, Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege: Surviving
Public Crisis, (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987) 6, 7.
5 Fitzpatrick, Kathy, personal email, 30 Apr. 1997.
6 Birch, John, "New Factors in Crisis Planning and Response," Public Relations Quarterly,
Spring 1994: 33.
most importantly, Air Force policy formulation.7 A senior Air Force lawyer who regularly
briefs officers regarding the military justice system perceives that commanders are
distressed to see distortions in the media and their "possible impact on their ability to
handle a case according to their best judgment."8
There is already a body of knowledge on the relationship between corporate
lawyers and public relations people. The research shows the two sides frequently can
offer "competing and adversarial approaches to problem solving" and "have a paralyzing
effect on the decision-making process," forcing leaders to balance the two perspectives.9
This could be because, as one senior Air Force lawyer said, the legal focus normally has
been on inside-the-courtroom issues and "media relations has been traditionally left to
Public Affairs."10 But on the other hand, many scholars and practitioners believe that if
properly used, the two consultants can play significant roles in helping an organization
survive or even prevent a crisis. 11
Research on this topic has been done mostly by communicators using data
gathered from other communicators. However, the researcher gathered data from not
7 Swanson, Jim, "JA/PA Relations and the Media," briefing at the Air Education and
Training Command Public Affairs Conference, Feb. 1997.
8 Rives, Jack, Air Force Judge Advocate General School commandant, personal telephone
conversation, 14 Jul. 1997.
9 Cooper, Douglas, "CEO Must Weigh Legal and Public Relations Approaches," Public
Relations Journal, Jan. 1992, 40.
11 Cooper, 40.
only public affairs personnel, but also from legal practitioners and from Air Force decision
makers-the commanders. Because researchers have neglected examining this relationship
from the perspective of these other professionals, this research will fill a void in the
literature on the subject.
Additionally, nearly all of the research regarding this relationship has been done
from the corporate or business viewpoint, which has left a gap in research regarding those
in government and, in particular, military service. Still, a few similarities can be drawn
between the two types of organizations. With more than 500,000 employees, an annual
$75 billion budget and more than 75 worldwide installations, the United States Air Force
is comparable to a large international company. 12 And like any large company, the Air
Force is faced with crises from time to time and will continue to be vulnerable to crises
and related negative effects. The Air Force is also similar to civilian companies which,
when facing crises, are "turning to two consultants: lawyers and those engaged in public
Nevertheless, the military faces three additional factors that might exacerbate any
existing strain between the two fields. First, the Department of Defense consistently
draws a very large amount of attention from Congress, the news media, special interest
groups, the states and communities where installations are based, and the millions who
have family members and friends who serve. One Air Force lawyer who has noticed the
12 "U.S. Air Force Almanac 1997," Tamar Mehuron, ed., Air Force Magazine, May 1997,
13 Cooper, 40.
increased media coverage of Air Force courts martial and other disciplinary actions
attributes it to an increase in the number of "victims" seeking media attention on their
behalf, the growing use of the media by defense attorneys and the proliferation of and
competition among the media themselves. 14 And recently, the media have been more
rigorous in getting information, often from other-than-official sources, says another Air
Force lawyer, making it even more essential that communicators and lawyers work closely
together to minimize distortions in the media. 15
Second, in addition to being under the jurisdiction of state and federal law, all
military members have other legal responsibilities under the Uniform Code of Military
Justice and military regulations, which can create challenges that corporate practitioners
may never face. For example, although company executives may lose their jobs or face
civil litigation from spouses following adulterous affairs with coworkers, recent high-
visibility cases have shown that service members can be criminally prosecuted and put in
jail for similar transgressions. Although "adultery is almost never prosecuted unless other
serious offense are also alleged," 16 the Air Force has prosecuted nine people for adultery
alone since 1985.17
15 Rives, personal telephone conversation.
16 Rives, Jack, "It Works for Us: A Guide to the Military's Rules On Fraternization and
Adultery," (http://www.palink.af.mil/home/fratpax.html) 11 Dec. 1997.
17 Nobel, Carmen, "The Kelly Flinn Case: Pilot's Discharge Won't End The Debate Over
Crimes Of The Heart," Air Force Times, 2 Jun. 1997.
Third, military spokespersons are obligated by law to release information unless it
is classified or otherwise exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. So although
choosing not to release information may be a viable option for corporate public relations
practitioners, government communicators operate under a different set of rules.
The combination of these three factors-intense media attention, the UCMJ, and the
obligation to release information-can make for some unique legal-public relations
situations. Research into the relationship between these two fields in the military will add
to the body of knowledge that already exists regarding the relationship in corporate and
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Definition of Terms
There has been much discussion in the literature regarding the definition of
"conflict," but for purposes of this paper, a conflict exists "whenever incompatible
activities occur."1 Two military terms also need clarification. The military calls its
public relations function public affairs. Although there are a few differences between
what a corporate public relations person does and what an Air Force public affairs person
does, the functions of media relations, community relations and internal relations are
largely the same, so the two terms will be used interchangeably. Similarly, the Air Force
calls its legal officers judge advocates, which will be used interchangeably with
"lawyers" and "attorneys."
Conflict Theory-An Overview
Conflict and the Causes of Conflict
Morton Deutsch, a sociologist who has studied conflict for more than 25 years,
has written, "Conflict can neither be eliminated nor even suppressed for long."2 His
1 Deutsch, Morton, The Resolution of Conflict, (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2 Deutsch, 10.
statement that conflict occurs "whenever incompatible activities occur" is not limited to
only competitive situations but also extends to cooperative situations as well since
"controversy over the means to achieve a mutually desired objective is a common part of
cooperation."3 He believes that conflict in and of itself is neither good nor bad, but that
conflicts can be resolved with either constructive or destructive consequences to the
participants: "A conflict clearly has destructive consequences if its participants are
dissatisfied with the outcomes and feel they have lost as a result of the conflict ... a
conflict has productive consequences if the participants all are satisfied with their
outcomes and feel that they have gained as a result of the conflict."4
Accordingly, Deutsch lists seven variables that can affect the course of conflict
and that can determine whether a conflict is resolved productively: the characteristics of
the parties in conflict, their prior relationship to one another, the nature of the issue giving
rise to the conflict, the social environment within which the conflict occurs, the interested
audiences to the conflict, the strategy and tactics employed by the parties in the conflict,
and the consequences of the conflict to each of the participants and to other interested
If, as Deutsch says, conflict between parties is inevitable from time to time, the
goal of conflict resolution is not necessarily how to eliminate or prevent conflict but
3 Deutsch, 10, 31.
4 Deutsch, 17.
5 Deutsch, 4-6.
rather "how to make it productive." 6 Conflict can be resolved in a variety of ways. One
of the simplest ways to analyze conflict resolution is detailed by Alan Filley. He lists
three methods: forcing (win-lose), compromising (lose-lose), and problem solving (win-
As the labels in parentheses suggest, win-lose and lose-lose methods mean that at
least one party of the conflict has failed to achieve objectives, thereby causing what
Deutsch would call destructive consequences. Both of these methods also have in
There is a clear we-they distinction between the parties rather than a we-
Energies are directed toward the other party in an atmosphere of total victory
or total defeat.
Each party sees the issue only from his/her own point of view, rather than
defining the problem in terms of mutual needs.
Their emphasis in the process is upon attainment of a solution, rather than
upon a definition of goals, values, or motives to be attained with the solution.
Conflicts are personalized rather than depersonalized via an objective focus on
facts and issues.
There is no differentiation of conflict-resolving activities from other group
processes, nor is there a planned sequence of those activities.
The parties are conflict-oriented, emphasizing the immediate disagreement,
rather than relationship-oriented, emphasizing the long-term effect of their
differences and how they are resolved.8
6 Deutsch, 17.
7 Filley, Alan, Interpersonal Conflict Resolution, (Dallas: Scott, Foresman and Company,
8 Filley, 25.
Forcing methods are further characterized by "real or perceived power imbalances
between the parties" where each tries to control such things as information, money and
authority, resulting in one party giving in to the other or a deadlock.9 Compromising
methods differ from forcing in the assumption by both parties that there is an equal
balance of power between them and that continued disagreement is more costly than
compromise. Even so, each party still tries to increase its power, and information is still
hoarded or manipulated to gain an advantage. The result of compromising methods is
that, while both parties agree to a particular decision, neither is really satisfied with it. 10
On the other hand, problem-solving methods use consensus strategies and focus
on the end goal, thereby causing what Deutsch would call productive consequences. As a
win-win method, the only thing lost by engaging in problem-solving, says Filley, is "the
creation of losers."1 1 Problem-solving is characterized by a belief that it is possible to
"arrive at a solution which is of high quality and which is mutually acceptable."12
Information is fully shared and all alternatives are evaluated before a decision is made,
and the outcome of this win-win method is usually a decision to which both parties are
9 Filley, 90.
10 Filley, 91.
11 Filley, 22.
12 Filley, 92.
Unfortunately, says Filley, forcing and compromising are the most practiced
methods of conflict resolution, perhaps "because of the tendency many of us have to
persist in using learned behavior patterns, even those which are destructive." 13 The
decision by a party to use a particular method is based on each party's belief of the
possibility of an agreement, the possibility of finding a win-win solution, and the ultimate
Accordingly, Filley has discussed various organizational options to increase the
likelihood that problem-solving will be the method of choice when resolving conflicts.
His options include: parties meeting together to develop joint agendas of problems to be
solved, the allowing of open disagreement on both sides in each other's presence, and
meeting to discuss attitudes, feelings and previous behavior. 15 These organizational
options are similar to the steps in one particular type of problem solving that Filley calls
"integrative decision making." This process includes the review and adjustment of the
conditions that promote cooperation versus conflict; the review and adjustment of
perceptions, feelings and attitudes between parties; mutual determination of the problem;
nonjudgmental generation of potential solutions; the evaluation of the solutions; and
agreement on the final decision. 16
13 Filley, 22.
14 Filley, 56, 57.
15 Filley, 76-79.
16 Filley, 92, 93.
Public Relations vs. Legal Counsel
Using conflict theory to examine the relationship between public relations and
legal counsel is appropriate, because although both staff functions are usually on the same
team, whether that team is the Air Force or a company, each represents different and
sometimes conflicting objectives. Such conflicts can reflect the two arenas in which they
operate-"courts of law proclaim that a person is innocent until proven guilty, whereas the
court of public opinion often declares a person guilty until proven innocent."17 A
negative ruling in either can be devastating-in a court of law, one can be imprisoned or
lose large sums of money, and in the court of public opinion, "you lose your reputation,
your good name and your positive image."'8 Conflicts between the two also may be a
result of perceived or real incompatibilities with the laws or rules which govern each
field. For example, although military personnel are bound by the Freedom of Information
Act and other regulatory instructions to provide full disclosure of information to the
public with minimum delay, 19 they also are restricted by law from releasing some types
of personal information about Air Force employees under The Privacy Act of 1974 and
other regulations. And, the Air Force's Rules of Professional conduct, which are based
on the American Bar Association's Standards for Criminal Justice, prohibit personnel
from making statements that "have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an
17 Fearn-Banks, Kathleen, Crisis Communications: a casebook approach (Mahwah, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996) 98.
18 Fearn-Banks, 97.
19 Air Force Instruction 35-206, Media Relations, 29 Jun 1994 at 1.3.2.
adjudicative proceeding."20 At the core of such conflict is one experienced by military
and civilian lawyers and communicators alike-the balance between the public's right to
know and an organization's or a person's right to privacy and the right to fair legal
Lawyers and the Court of Law
There is disagreement over whether there has been a "litigation explosion" in the
United States. One author estimates that civil litigation "is increasing approximately
seven times faster than the national population"21 and another estimates that up to 30
million cases are filed each year.22 Yet the national Center for State Courts reported in
1996 that there is no evidence that the number of civil lawsuits is on the rise and that the
number has actually been decreasing since 1990.23 Regardless of the actual number of
cases filed, they cost corporate America more than $80 billion a year.24 Because
corporate lawyers want to prevent litigation from occurring and desire to win should a
20 Air Force Rules of Professional Conduct at 3.6, Trial Publicity.
21 Garry, Patrick, A Nation of Adversaries: How the Litigation Explosion Is Reshaping
America, (New York: Plenum Press, 1997) 15.
22 Jacobs, Margaret, "Reliable Data about Lawsuits Are Very Scarce," Wall Street
Journal, Jun. 9, 1995, 1 as cited in Garry.
23 Dilworth, Donald, "Court Statistics Confirm No Litigation Explosion," Trial, May
24 Quayle, J. Danforth, speech delivered to the American Bar Association convention in
Atlanta, Ga. (Aug. 1991), reprinted in Earlhamite, Spring 1992, at 6 as cited in
Roschwalb, Susanne and Stack, Richard, "Litigation Public Relations," Communication
and the Law, Dec. 1992: 5.
lawsuit be filed against their company, they naturally want to control any information
which could affect such litigation. Since anything spoken or written can potentially be
used against a client in court, and since anyone with knowledge of an organization can be
called into court for depositions against a client,25 "the last thing that an attorney wants
to do is to lose control of the words... ."26 And although some public relations
practitioners argue that "wordsmithing is time-consuming and pointless,"27 it is for this
reason that some lawyers instinctively "encourage the CEO to head for the bunker and
slam the door, saying and admitting nothing."28 One lawyer who is concerned about the
balance between public relations and legal issues during crises states:
One of a lawyer's primary concerns in a crisis is ensuring that the client doesn't
make statements that will prove detrimental or fatal in a later legal proceeding.
Be assured that all public statements-written or oral-made by a company and its
representative during a crisis will be scrutinized by lawyers preparing a later
lawsuit against the company. Any statements even slightly suggestive of an
admission of liability will turn up in post-crisis litigation.29
25 Fearn-Banks, 97.
26 Cooper, Douglas, "CEO Must Weigh Legal and Public Relations Approaches," Public
Relations Journal, Jan. 1992: 39.
27 Sylvester, Carla, "PA Lessons: High Visibility Court-Martial" briefing at the Air
Education and Training Command Public Affairs Conference, Feb. 1997.
28 Birch, 31.
29 Magid, Creighton, "Balancing PR and Legal Needs in a Crisis," Reputation
Management, Nov/Dec 1995, (http://www.prcentral.com/rmso95magid.htm).
Therefore, it is not surprising that some lawyers focus on winning the legal battle
and believe that "if the case is won, it does not matter what the public thinks."30 One
author sums up a description of this traditional legal communication strategy: say
nothing; say as little as possible and release it as quietly as possible; "say as little
possible, citing privacy law, company policy or sensitivity; deny guilt and/or act indignant
that such charges could possibly have been made; and shift or, if necessary, share the
blame with the plaintiff."31
Public Relations and the Court of Public Opinion
In its crisis communication manual, General Motors says that "there are few assets
on GM's balance sheet worth more than its reputation. A damaged reputation that is left
untended can lead to a loss of organizational self-esteem and erosion of long-standing
external relationships."32 On a similar note, the Air Force's former top military officer,
General Ronald Fogleman, said that "we must consider our corporate image as a priceless
resource as valuable as our people and aircraft."33 During the past 10 years, the military
has remained one of the institutions in which Americans have the most confidence,
30 Cooper, 39.
31 James Lukaszewski, "Reducing the Media's Power," Executive Action, Apr-Jun 1993
as cited in Fitzpatrick, Kathy and Rubin, Maureen, "Public Relations vs. Legal Strategies
in Organization Crisis Decisions," Public Relations Review, Spring 1995: 22.
32 General Motors Corporation Crisis Communication Manual, 1991: 6.
33 Sconyers, Ronald, U.S. Air Force Director of Public Affairs, Global Communication
Into the 21st Century, briefing to new Air Force general officers, May 1997.
according to annual Harris Polls.34 The 1997 poll netted the armed services the top spot
with 37% of respondents indicating they had "a great deal of confidence" in the military,
with the medical community and the U.S. Supreme Court garnering second and third
place with 29% and 28%, respectively. Even so, just a year earlier the same rating for the
military was at 47%, a full ten points higher. Some, including Harris officials, have
attributed this loss of confidence to the string of recent military sex scandals and other
One author agrees with the emphasis on reputation, saying, "The notion of
damage to corporate reputation is not just ephemeral, but actually a tangible item... ."35
An example of just how tangible a reputation can be to a company's bottom line is the
crisis at Texaco which occurred after The New York Times printed transcripts of a
meeting where company executives made racially offensive comments and discussed
withholding evidence from a current lawsuit claiming racial discrimination. The financial
fallout from the damage to its reputation-the value of its stock, the scrutiny of
government regulators, the boycott and defection of customers, and more-will "dwarf"
the millions Texaco will pay to settle the lawsuit that initiated the crisis in the first
34 "A Falling Star," Air Force Times, 9 June 1997.
35 DeMartino, Tony, "How To Do Litigation Public Relations," Inside PR, 17 Feb. 1997
36 Collingwood, Harris, "Message Therapy," Working Woman, February 1997: 26.
Gerald Meyers, a business professor at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches a
crisis response curriculum, believes that public relations deserves equal footing with
lawyers during crises. "If you win public opinion," he says, "the company can move
forward and get through it. If you lose there, it won't make any difference what happens
in a court of law."37 Kathy Fitzpatrick, a public relations practitioner and lawyer, agrees
saying, "Once a company's reputation is destroyed, it may not matter if any lawsuits are
filed."38 She describes the traditional public relations way of responding to accusations
and rebuilding credibility as a five step process: state company policy on the issue,
investigate the allegations, be candid, voluntarily admit that a problem exists, if true, and
announce/implement corrective measures as fast as possible.39
Veteran public relations people know that those who "demonstrate the ability to
communicate early, lead the public debate and establish themselves as a credible source
have the best opportunity to win in the court of public opinion."40 Certain public
relations techniques also can help an organization win in a court of law. One litigation
public relations counselor has developed a communication process for mitigating legal,
media relations and political consequences following a damaging situation:
38 Fitzpatrick, Kathy, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management,"
Public Relations Quarterly, Summer 1995: 33.
39 Fitzpatrick, Kathy and Rubin, Maureen, "Public Relations vs. Legal Strategies in
Organizational Crisis Decisions," Public Relations Review, Spring 1995, 22.
Admit a problem exists and state that something will be done to fix it.
Explain why the problem occurred and the known reasons for it.
Commit to regularly report additional information.
Declare the organization's specific steps to address the issues.
State "regret, empathy, sympathy or even embarrassment" by taking
responsibility, if appropriate, for having allowed the situation to occur.
Ask the government, the community, and opponents for help.
Publicly set or reset goals at zero-"zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb
decisions, zero problems."
Find a way to make restitution quickly because situations remedied quickly
cost a lot less and are controversial for much shorter periods of time.41
Balancing Legal and Public Relations Communication Strategies
A strictly legal communication strategy can have a very negative effect on the
public's perception of an organization in crisis. An overly cautious attorney can "thwart
efforts at communicating a company's message by precluding all but the most banal
public comments and eviscerating carefully crafted news releases."42 And although it is
true that what people say can be used against them in a court of law, "anything you do not
say can be used against you in the court of public opinion."43 This is especially
important in crises which involve loss of life. One crisis communication expert writes:
"Show concern for the families. Treat survivors compassionately. Provide them with as
41 James Lukaszewski, "Managing Litigation Visibility: How To Avoid Lousy Trial
Publicity," Public Relations Quarterly, Spring 1995: 23.
43 Fearn-Banks, 97.
much information as possible. Keep them informed about the investigation of the
incident ... Don't let possible legal liabilities interfere with presenting a human face."44
From a media relations view, refusing to tell one's own side of the story can be
suicidal to an organization. "Journalists abhor a void," says a senior vice president at
Fleishman-Hillard, a leading public relations firm, "and will fill it with or without your
cooperation."45 What is worse is that the media will often find an organization's
opponent to be more cooperative. As one author put it, "Never doubt the resourcefulness
of your adversaries, nor the willingness of the public to believe the worst of the best
companies."46 An Air Force lawyer with a background in mass communication agrees,
saying that the Air Force "can't afford NOT to play-the 'other side' will whether or not
we do."47 And although the Air Force traditionally does not try cases in the media,
another Air Force lawyer recognizes that "we can't routinely let incorrect statements
stand in the media."48
44 Marion Pinsdorf, "Crashes Bare Values Affecting Response Success," Public
Relations Journal, July 1991: 33.
46 Pinsdorf, Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege: Surviving Public
47 Swanson, James, Air Education and Training Command Staff Judge Advocate,
personal email, 15 Aug. 1997
48 Rives, Jack, Air Force Judge Advocate General School commandant, personal
telephone conversation, 14 Jul. 1997.
Bolstering these opinions are data from two studies. A recent Opinion Research
Corporation study showed that "58% of the public believe that a large company is guilty
when its spokesperson responds with 'no comment' to charges of wrongdoing."49 A
1993 national survey to measure public perception of corporate crises pushed the number
up to 65% who said that "when a company spokesperson declines to comment, it almost
always means that the company is guilty of wrongdoing."50 Such reaction from the
American public is natural. As one author put it, "The public believes that an innocent
man can answer a policeman's questions without having a lawyer present. After all, what
does he have to hide?"51 It is for this reason that most public relations people advocate a
strategy that says, "You may not be able to say much, but you can say something. If all
the facts aren't there, get out and say so."52 And some attorneys also believe that "'no
comment' is the least appropriate and least productive response ... it adds absolutely
nothing and leaves the public with a negative impression."53 Similarly, although the Air
Force will often decline to discuss certain types of information, it instructs spokespersons
not to use "no comment" because "you will sound and look guilty."54
50 Maynard, Roberta, "Handling a Crisis Effectively," Nation's Business, Dec. 1993: 54.
51 Fearn-Banks, 97.
52 Warner, Hal, as cited in Maynard, 54.
53 Shapiro, Robert, "Using the Media to Your Advantage," The Champion, Jan./Feb.
54 Air Force Instruction 35-206 at 2.17.
An example of a company who failed to "get out and say so" is Dow Corning,
which has lost millions in settling claims over its silicone breast implants and which has
been criticized for not releasing factual information soon enough. 55 Another example of
a company that has come under fire for withholding information is Rockwell
International, the major contractor for the space shuttle. Following the 1986 Challenger
explosion, the company instituted a nearly complete news blackout, even refusing to
release basic facts about the shuttle program.56
One example of a company which lost in the legal courts partly because it lost in
the court of public opinion is Denny's. Even after more than 4,300 individual claims of
racial discrimination in its restaurants, Denny's public statement said, "Our company
does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. Any time evidence of such behavior is
brought to our attention, we investigate and appropriate disciplinary action is taken."57
This denial, in the face of evidence or perception of the opposite, contributed to the $43.7
million Denny's forked out to settle the class-action suit. 58
55 Rumptz, Mark; Leland, Robb; McFaul, Sheila; Solinski, Renee and Pratt, Cornelius,
"A Public Relations Nightmare: Dow Corning Offers Too Little, Too Late," Public
Relations Quarterly, Summer 1992: 30.
56 Kaufman, John, "Rockwell Fails in Response to Shuttle Disaster," Public Relations
Review, Winter 1988: 8.
57 Denny's Nation's Restaurant News, Vol. 27, No. 14 (April 5, 1993), p. 5 as cited in
58 "Denny's Settles Claims in Discrimination Complaints for Record $46 Million," Jet,
13 Jun. 1994, 6 as cited in Woods, Gail Baker, "It Could Happen to You: A Framework
for Understanding and Managing Crises Involving Race," paper submitted to the Public
Relations Society of America, 10 Jun. 1996, 8.
Still another example of an organization that damaged its own image before the
court battle began was Sears, which in 1992 faced accusations that its automotive centers
were regularly overcharging customers. Sears immediately denied the charges. The
company later softened its response, but the damage already was done. According to
Meyers, "They apparently thought the lawyers would take care of it and that they'd be a
success in a court of law, but in a situation like this that should be way down your list of
In fairness, not all lawyers recommend the "no comment" approach. There are
lawyers who "realize that a defendant can win a battle in a court of law and lose in the
court of public opinion"60 and who "appreciate that there is no point in protecting a
company legally if consumer confidence is so undermined that there is no company left to
protect by the time a case comes to court."61 Perhaps they know that, because the court
of public opinion can be very influential in determining the success or failure of a
company, it is possible to win the legal battle but lose the war. That very reason was
behind the decision by the owners of a Florida restaurant who decided not to prosecute a
teenager who had spread rumors about the establishment which resulted in a drastic cut in
business. The teenager publicly apologized and company officials felt that if they did
proceed with legal action, it would have been perceived in the community as "the
59 Stevenson, Richard, "Sears Ducks, Then Tries to Cover," The New York Times, 17
60 Fearn-Banks, 98.
61 Birch, 33.
powerful restaurant ruining the life of a well-meaning child who made a mistake in
Some lawyers, including famed defense attorney Robert Shapiro, believe that
"there is no question that media coverage can and does affect the ultimate outcome of
widely publicized cases" and that influencing the media can be just as consequential as
convincing judges and juries.63 Other attorneys agree, including one former U.S.
Attorney who, in response to Kenneth Starrff's communication tactics in investigating
allegations that President Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice, said "The
public's perception of how a case is handled is very important. That's half the battle in
As described in the section on conflict resolution, it is possible to end up with a
lose-lose situation as well. This happened in 1997, when the Air Force went forward with
court martial proceedings against the nation's first female bomber pilot for offenses
which included lying, disobedience and adultery, a case that "boomeranged against the
military in the court of public opinion."65 The pilot, First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, hired a
lawyer and public relations firm to plead her case with the news media and succeeded in
62 Fearns-Bank, 98.
63 Shapiro, 12.
64 Bronner, Ethan, "Testing of a President," The New York Times, Feb. 14, 1998, Al.
65 Kempster, Norman, "Air Force Seeks to Avert Adultery Case Dogfight; Military:
Female B-52 Pilot is Offered Chance to Resign in Lieu of Court-Martial and End
Awkward Issue for Both Sides," Los Angeles Times, 16 May 1997.
"framing the case as one of a hide-bound military establishment willing to destroy her
career and throw her in jail because, as she put it, 'I fell in love with the wrong man.'"66
She succeeded, in part, due to the fact that her privacy rights combined with legal
interpretations of statutory restrictions effectively muzzled the Air Force.67 In fact,
"despite warnings from senior people in public affairs that the service was going to get its
clock cleaned in the court of public opinion, Air Force lawyers insisted that the service
basically do nothing to tell its side of the story."68 Still, military spokespersons did what
they could to emphasize to the media and to the public that the crux of the court action
was on the lying and disobedience charges, not the adultery charge. Still, the public
initially took Flinn's side-in a Gallup Poll taken during the controversy, 62% of those
surveyed were sympathetic to the pilot.69 In response to mounting public and
congressional pressure, the Air Force opted for a general discharge for Lt. Flinn instead of
proceeding with the court martial, sparing itself the "national embarrassment of court-
martialing her amid a rising storm of public protest."70 Surprisingly, the tide began to
66 Richter, Paul and Savage, David, "Courts-Martial Common in Cases Similar to
Pilot's: Military: Experts Contradict Female Flier's Claim of Unfair Treatment, But AF is
not Seen as Blameless for the Record," Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1997.
67 James, Byron, briefing to the Public Affairs Leadership Course, Oct. 1997.
68 "Almost a bad memory," Air Force Times, 15 Dec. 1997.
69 Kalb, Bernard, "Discussion on the Aftermath of the Media Assault on Minot Air Force
Base" CNN Reliable Sources, 25 May 1997.
70 Beck, Joan, "She's Gone, but the Issue Hangs in the Air," Chicago Tribune, 25 May
turn against Flinn once more of the prosecutor's information was released to the public.
Even so, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that 53% of respondents felt the Air
Force mishandled the situation.71 In analyzing this crisis, one journalist summed up the
case by saying, "If the Air Force made a mistake in Flinn's case, it was in not recognizing
sooner when a public relations battle was so far lost that it was no longer worth
fighting."72 The end result was that the Air Force lost not only its control over the
military justice system, but lost public image points as well.
There are many advantages to using a proactive public relations strategy during
crises. Although not entirely without criticism, Johnson & Johnson's use of such
techniques in response to the Tylenol cyanide crisis has long been extolled as a textbook
response to a crisis. The company made efforts to answer all media inquiries, halted all
Tylenol advertising and posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
The result was that the brand name went on to quickly regain its 37% share of the pain-
reliever market.73 But perhaps most importantly, from a crisis communication point of
view, the CEO voluntarily associated himself with the negative story. And ever since,
72 Whiting, Charles, "Goodbye and Good Riddance to Air Force's Insubordinate Lt.
Flinn," Star Tribune, 23 May 97.
73 Berg and Robb, 100.
says one author, "the media have come to expect the senior managers to deal with reports,
to be accessible and to supply all the answers."74
Certainly a proactive public relations strategy can be effective in countering what
is automatically a stacked deck against organizations involved in crises, and as a result it
has been the battle cry for years by seasoned public relations practitioners. The reality is
that organizations are automatically assumed to be guilty-"courts, judges, other
participants in the process and the news media tend to look at them as suspects."75 One
study revealed that more than 33% of those surveyed think that a company is "probably
guilty" if accused of doing something wrong.76 Again, in commenting on the
importance of good media relations, Shapiro has said initial headlines "often make the
sacred presumption of innocence a myth. In reality, we have the assumption of guilt."77
The public's close scrutiny of crisis management may indicate that "the damage
inflicted on a corporate reputation is determined more by its handling of the crisis than by
the seriousness of the crisis itself," and that people "don't evaluate you on whether you
make mistakes, but on how you fix them."78 Furthermore, people are not very confident
74 "CIBA Opens its Culture, and its Mind," Reputation Management, Nov/Dec 1996,
(http:// www.register. com/prcentral/rmndcrisis.htm).
75 Lukaszewski, "Managing Litigation Visibility: How To Avoid Lousy Trial Publicity,"
77 Shapiro, 8.
78 "CIBA Opens its Culture, and its Mind."
that companies in crises tell the truth either. A 1993 survey of 1,000 American adults
revealed that more than half of the respondents thought that companies withhold
information or give out false information when facing a crisis.79 What is even more
important, however, is that people may be more upset over such communication tactics
than they are about the actual crisis. The same study yielded 95% of respondents saying
that "they are more offended when a company lies about a crisis than they are about the
crisis itself."80 This is one area in which the military may have a better reputation than its
corporate counterparts. A 1995 national survey of more than 350 journalists by The
Freedom Forum First Amendment Center indicated that 84% of respondents believed that
military personnel are honest when dealing with the news media.81
Unfortunately, some communicators naively think that "the power of public
opinion will pull all else with it, including the courts of public and judicial opinion" not
realizing that relying completely on the traditional proactive public relations approach can
be dangerous. 82 As one lawyer cautions, "Just as a public relations disaster may result
79 Maynard, 55.
80 Maynard, 54.
81 Aukofer, Frank and Lawrence, William, America's Team The Odd Couple: A Report
on the Relationship Between the Media and the Military, (Vanderbilt Unversity: The
Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1995) 32.
82 Cooper, 40.
when lawyers ignore reputation issues, public relations professionals who fail to
recognize the legal issues in a crisis put their client at considerable risk."83
Not only can practitioners unwittingly place their clients at jeopardy in a court of
law, but they "must carefully watch what they say, must be sure the information is
complete and honest, and must consider as many ramifications as time and deadline
pressure permits. Often an innocent quote today is later recycled out of context."84 Such
was the case 50 years ago when a military public information officer issued a news
release saying that officials from Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico had recovered
a "flying disc."85 The following day a second military news release was issued saying
that the object recovered was just a weather balloon, but the damage was done. These
initial public affairs actions were the catalyst for rumors that still continue five decades
later and are responsible, in part, for the fact that 64% of Americans surveyed in a recent
Time/USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll do not believe the Air Force's explanation of the
As discussed, lawyers are naturally concerned about any statements made that
would imply culpability during a crisis. Of course there can be advantages to admitting
84 Pinsdorf, Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege: Surviving Public
85 Mendoza, Martha, "This Town Cashes in on the Alien Mystique," Air Force Times, 7
86 CNN Headline News, 23 Jul. 1997.
guilt quickly, especially when an organization is responsible for a crisis. When one child
died and more than 300 people were sickened by E. coli bacteria linked to Jack in the
Box hamburgers in 1993, "it took nearly a week for the company to admit publicly its
responsibility for the poisonings."87 The company at first tried traditional legal strategies
of deflecting blame to state health authorities, then to its meat supplier. The result of the
mishandled public relations response was that "nervous customers defected to other
burger joints in droves." In contrast, when Odwalla Inc. went through a similar crisis in
1996 when one baby girl died from drinking apple juice containing E. coli, the company
received high marks for public relations. The company was credited with "moving
quickly to institute a voluntary recall, cooperating with the Food and Drug
Administration, offering to pay the medical expenses of victims affected by contaminated
Odwalla products, ... offering to refund the purchase price of any of the company's
drinks, even those not being recalled, and for being responsive to the media."88 The
crisis did result in individual and class-action lawsuits against Odwalla, but the family of
the dead girl did not pursue any litigation, saying they did not blame the company.
Although the family's decision was made largely for religious reasons, they lauded the
company's efforts to meet with them, pay the girl's medical expenses, set up a fund in the
girl's memory and renovate a park where the girl used to play.89
87 "Boxed in at Jack in the Box," Business Week, 15 Feb. 1993: 40.
88 Howe, Kenneth, "Odwalla Gets High Marks for Concern," The San Francisco
Chronicle, 2 Nov. 1996.
89 Simpson, Kevin, "After Tragic Loss, Couple Looks Forward to New Joy," The Denver
Post, 20 Jul. 1997.
But, when responsibility for a crisis is not the company's fault or if responsibility
has not been determined yet, the last thing a company wants to do is inadvertently say
something that could be perceived as an admission of guilt. Spokespersons should never
"speculate about cause, consequences or liability."90 Indeed, Air Force public affairs
officers are to "refrain from discussing Air Force negligence or liability" following an
accident.91 Says one lawyer, "Companies should definitely express their concern, but
that doesn't mean you have to take responsibility for whatever is happening to them if the
responsibility actually lies elsewhere."92 There is a way, as many practitioners know, to
"vehemently deny any fault while at the same time expressing remorse that a problem has
occurred."93 The art of "apologia," which may or may not include an apology, seeks to
rephrase existing charges against a company into a more favorable context94 or to
"demonstrate the company's concern for the affected parties and avoid public anger
directed at the organization."95 Various techniques can be effective. Using words like
"bad judgment," "mistake" or others that have "relatively insignificant ethical
90 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management," 36.
91 Air Force Instruction 35-102, Crisis Planning, Management and Response, 22 Jun.
1994 at 6.8.
92 "CIBA Opens its Culture, and its Mind."
93 Fitzpatrick and Rubin, 22.
94 Hearit, Keith, "Apologies and Public Relations Crises at Chrysler, Toshiba, and
Volvo," Public Relations Review, Summer 1994: 115.
95 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management," 36.
implications" is one technique.96 Another technique is to issue statements of regret
which "simultaneously express sorrow for what has happened yet minimize corporate
responsibility for wrongdoing."97 However, "words like ashamed, concerned,
disappointed, regret, sad, tragic, unfortunate, unintended, and unnecessary don't seem to
come easily to the lips of corporate executives or spokespeople."98
This technique is not without danger either, however. It is possible to overdo it
with "too much mea culpa," making people "wonder what manner of wimp is running
things."99 Some people have criticized Texaco CEO Peter Bijur for admitting guilt too
quickly following Texaco's racial crisis. Even though he didn't know what was on the
tapes-much of which turned out to be indecipherable-he apologized publicly and agreed
to form a special panel to look at the company's diversity programs. 100 Although the
initial story was relatively short lived and the company's stock bounced back after only
three weeks, some felt Bijur capitulated too easily by "unnecessarily giving away $176
million that belonged to Texaco's shareholders," losing control over his own employment
policies and perhaps creating a wider rift between black and white employees, all without
96 Hearit, 116.
97 Hearit, 117.
98 Lukaszewski, "Managing Litigation Visibility: How To Avoid Lousy Trial Publicity,"
99 Pinsdorf, Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege: Surviving Public
100 Bennett, Robert, "Texaco's Bijur: Hero or Sellout?," PR Strategist, Winter 1996: 18.
a guarantee that no more payments would be required or that the activist groups would
decrease their pressure on the company. 101
The Relationship Between Public Relations Practitioners and Lawyers
The Corporate Relationship
In 1996, Fitzpatrick published findings from a survey of 1,000 public relations
practitioners regarding their relationship with lawyers. The data from the 376 responses
she received indicated that, of the nearly 85% who worked regularly with an attorney,
more than 40% described the relationship as "excellent" and nearly 45% described the
relationship as "good." The remaining 15% described their relationship as "fair" or
"poor."102 She concluded that these data could suggest "an increased appreciation by
public relations professionals and attorneys for the other's function and/or a shared
recognition of the need for a more interdisciplinary approach to organizational decision-
making."103 Her argument is substantiated by the fact that those who did report an
excellent or good relationship were those who worked with lawyers the most.
As demonstrated, because lawyers and public relations practitioners sometimes
have different goals, conflict between the two is occasionally inevitable. But again,
Fitzpatrick says that in reality these conflicts are usually resolved through
101 Bennett, 19.
102 Fitzpatrick, Kathy, "Public Relations and the Law: A Survey of Practitioners," Public
Relations Review, Spring 1996: 6.
103 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 7.
cooperation. 104 Of those she surveyed who had experienced a conflict with a lawyer on
a general course of action, more than 39% said that the final decision "was a compromise
or joint decision of public relations and legal counsel," 35% said that a company official
made the final decision, eight percent said that they themselves made the decision, nine
percent said that the lawyer made the final call, and about 10% said the conflict was
resolved by some other means.
However, during litigation the numbers showed a marked increase in an attorney's
influence in a decision involving public communication. Although more than 45% of the
respondents reported that joint decisions were made regarding public relations activities
during litigation, more than 25% of the time lawyers made the final decision and public
relations personnel only made the final decision about three percent of the time. 105
These figures support one author's view that "public relations in support of litigation is
the most sensitive and least understood element of lawyer/PR collaboration."106
Fitzpatrick warns that her study shows lawyers are encroaching on the public relations
field and indicates that "in situations involving conflicts with legal counsel over the
public release of information ... the reality is that public relations professionals are not
playing lead roles in these instances. "107
104 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 5.
105 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 6.
106 Roschwalb and Stack, 3.
107 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 7.
So although it appears that lawyers and public relations practitioners usually do
work well together and compromise on day-to-day public relations decisions, it also
seems that, during crises, public relations practitioners are not relied upon as the
communication experts. Such encroachment by the legal community concerns John
Budd, a former public relations practitioner who is now the CEO of the Omega Group.
He believes that
no matter the choice of decision, public relations must be the architect of the
communications-in both content and context ... The signals called are primarily-
and properly-by the lawyers. But, public relations has a legitimate role in
assessing the long-term impact of perceived guilt on the company's-and the
CEO's-credibility and reputation and a responsibility for adding this pivotal
consideration to the decision-making process. 108
Also of concern to communicators is that, though there seems to be much
compromising going on between lawyers and public relations practitioners, another study
by Fitzpatrick and Rubin suggests that public relations people are doing more
compromising than the lawyers. They conducted a content analysis of 39 sexual
harassment crises and reported that in nearly two-thirds of the cases studied, traditional
legal strategies, not public relations strategies, were used by spokespersons. 109
108 Budd, John, Jr., "GUILTY Until Proven Innocent: Litigation Journalism Tests
Public Relations Acumen," Public Relations Quarterly, Summer, 1994: 13.
109 Fitzpatrick and Rubin, 21.
The Air Force Relationship
There are currently approximately 400 public affairs officers and 1,300 judge
advocates serving in the Air Force.110 Little research beyond "lessons learned" from
specific crises has been conducted on the relationship between public affairs and legal
functions. Some knowledge can be obtained, however, by examining the two career
Newly acquired public affairs officers and judge advocates both receive
specialized military training in their respective fields. The Public Affairs Officer Course
at Fort Meade, MD, does have lesson plans which address some legal/mass
communication issues such as libel and slander, The Privacy Act, The Freedom of
Information Act, courts martial and criminal investigations. 111 The school does not have
any specific lesson plans which address the relationship between public affairs and
lawyers or the balance between public affairs and legal counsel, although one class
devoted to crisis communication and accident response includes mentioning that "PA and
Legal need to coordinate closely on those issues."1 12 Similarly, the Judge Advocate
General School at Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, does not have any specific curriculum
units dedicated to the relationship between the two fields, but judge advocate students do
110 "U.S. Air Force Almanac 1997," Tamar Mehuron, ed., Air Force Magazine, May
111 Kelly, Mike, Defense Information School Instructor, personal email, 3 Feb. 1998.
112 Kelly, Mike, Defense Information School Instructor, personal email, 21 Apr 97.
get a one-hour block of training regarding public affairs. 113 Students also receive
briefings on such things as media relations and professional ethics, and managing the
flow of information during highly-publicized court proceedings. 114
The rank structure inherent in the military could affect the relationship since judge
advocates usually outrank public affairs officers. This disparity of rank, and with it a
corresponding disparity of power and influence, can be seen from the lower levels-the
individual Air Force base-to the highest level where the senior Air Force lawyer is a two-
star general while the top Air Force public affairs officer is only a one-star general. One
possible reason for this disparity between the two fields may reflect the fact that, although
public relations has been practiced for centuries, the legal vocation is older and more
recognized as a profession. 115 Another reason could be the amount of higher education
each brings to the table. At the entry level, all public affairs officers and judge advocates
are required to have an undergraduate degree and receive technical training at Department
of Defense and Air Force schools. But, the lawyers also must earn a law degree prior to
becoming a judge advocate.
Air Force regulations occasionally address the relationship between military
lawyers and public affairs officers, usually in the context of guidance regarding specific
crises. For instance, media relations guidance for public affairs officers directs them to
113 Davies, Kirk, Military Justice Division, Judge Advocate General School, personal
email, 9 Feb. 1998.
114 Shepherd, Dennis, Staff Judge Advocate Course Director, personal email, 21 Apr.
115 Fearn-Banks, 98.
coordinate closely with judge advocates "before releasing any information" prior to a
trial. 116 And while the guidance is somewhat detailed at times concerning what
information is releasable and what information must be withheld regarding legal issues, a
catch-all phrase still instructs public affairs officers to "seek the advice of the staff judge
advocate on matters not clearly addressed here...." 117 Such instructions imply a very
active role by judge advocates regarding public affairs decisions. This implication could
be evidence that, in issues involving legal concerns, the real decision-making authority
regarding public affairs lies with the legal community, not the public affairs community.
Regardless, the bottom line is that the Air Force is supposed to "balance public interest in
the administration of justice against the accused's right to a fair trial and right to privacy"
when determining whether to release information regarding a criminal proceeding. 118
Finding Common Ground
Many lawyers and public relations people recognize the advantages of working
together and know "what horses pulling beer wagons have long known-that it is easier
and more productive to pull together." 119 Creighton Magid is one such attorney who
believes that "a client is best served if legal and communications counsel work in concert,
116 Air Force Instruction 35-206 at 1.7.7.
117 Air Force Instruction 35-206 at 126.96.36.199.
118 Air Force Instruction 51-2, Administration of Military Justice, 7 Sep. 1993 at 1.13.
119 Roschwalb and Stack, 5.
with an appreciation of the concerns each faces." 120 Indeed, the Air Force Judge
Advocate General states that "PA and JA offices, like all other staff agencies, are working
toward the same goal. That is, to provide commanders with the best possible
consolidated professional advice on issues impacting mission accomplishment."121 And
Fitzpatrick believes that, although lawyers and public relations people "often disagree on
the best approach to crisis communications, each plays a valuable role in ensuring a
company's success in surviving a crisis with both its reputation and legal standing
intact."122 These and other professionals who believe in a balanced legal and public
relations approach indicate that education, training and planning are key to achieving that
Education and Training
Although there are some public relations practitioners who do have both
communications and legal training, most public relations people usually do not have a
grasp of the law. Again, Fitzpatrick has some startling data. Her study of practitioners
asked respondents about their familiarity with categories of U.S. law that could impact
their organization and the majority said that they were just "somewhat" or "not at all"
familiar. 123 Other results include:
121 Hawley, Bryan, Memorandum to the Air Force Director of Public Affairs, 3 Nov.
122 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management," 34.
123 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 3.
More than one-half (51.1%) indicated no familiarity with SEC regulations; more
than 40% reported no familiarity with commercial speech (41.1%), financial
public relations (45.3%) or professional malpractice (48.0%); more than one-third
(34.9%) said they were "not at all" familiar with contracts, and slightly more than
21% reported no familiarity with access to information laws.
One could say that, with such a lack of knowledge regarding law, it is not surprising that,
in cases of conflict with lawyers during litigation, lawyers often have the upper hand in
public relations decisions. Indeed, it is partly this lack of knowledge that Fitzpatrick
suggests is leading communicators to make themselves and their clients legally liable. 124
Nevertheless, she argues that ignorance is no excuse, and that "in order to provide
effective representation, practitioners must acquaint themselves with the legal issues
involved both in their client organizations' operations and in communications."125 The
way to do this, of course, is interdisciplinary training for lawyers and public relations
people because they "must begin to understand their respective roles in order to use the
strengths of both professions. "126 According to Fitzpatrick, those communicators who
are most successful during crises "do not rely totally on attorneys ... They recognize the
importance of becoming legally literate themselves and seek out professional
development opportunities in this area." 127
124 Fitzpatrick, "Public Relations and the Law," 7.
125 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management" 34.
126 Roschwalb and Stack, 5.
127 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management" 34.
And although most lawyers do not have any mass communication training either,
more and more are recognizing the benefits of learning how to do public relations. The
American Bar Association provides media training for its officers, and many lawyers now
view public relations as one of the tools at their disposal to help win a case. Certainly
Shapiro is one of many attorneys who believe that "the lawyer's role as a spokesperson
may be equally important to the outcome of a case as the skills of an advocate in the
courtroom." 128 These attorneys may look to public relations experts for assistance just
as they seek help from psychologists, jury selection consultants, forensic scientists, and
others. 129 Indeed, one New York State Supreme Court justice has commented that
"lawyers now feel it is the essence of their function to try the case in the public
media."130 Air Force defense attorney Capt. Joseph Cazenavette agrees, saying he
"wouldn't be surprised if defense counsels decide to go to the media more often,"
especially in situations like Lt. Flinn's adultery case. 131 Some attorneys also believe
public relations can benefit attorneys not only by supporting their cases in the court of
128 Shapiro, 7.
129 Stein, M.L., "Lawyer Says It's OK to Lie To the Media," Editor and Publisher, 28
Aug. 1993: 10.
130 Hoffman, Jan, "May It Please the Public: Lawyers Exploit Media Attention as a
Defense Tactic," The New York Times, 22 Apr. 1994.
131 "Defense Lawyers Find 'Court of Public Opinion' Can Protect Their Clients," Air
Force Times, 28 Jul. 1997.
public opinion, but also by improving the image of the legal profession and marketing
legal services to potential clients. 132
The Air Force already has begun some occasional cross-training between the two
fields, reflecting the fact that "JA needs to be more conscious of the public affairs role
and public affairs officers need to be savvy about the military justice system."133 Public
affairs officers have spoken at the Judge Advocate General School and judge advocates
have spoken at some public affairs conferences. Recognizing the value of such
opportunities, both sides are currently in the process of offering more. A media guide
will be distributed to all Air Force legal offices, and coordination is underway to put
information, not only about the military justice system in general but also facts about
ongoing high-visibility court cases, on the Internet. 134 The Air Force also is
establishing a Public Affairs Center for Excellence to conduct research and further
develop the public affairs curriculum taught to officers as part of their professional
military education. 135 Additionally, in the wake of recent cases which have attracted
intense media scrutiny, public affairs officers and judge advocates have been aggressive
in hosting background briefings with journalists to educate them on legal terms and the
military justice system. Recently, a symposium was held at the Judge Advocate General
School to discuss how the media affect the administration of military justice, attended by
132 Roschwalb and Stack, 5.
senior Air Force lawyers, public affairs officers and Lt. Flinn's defense attorney. Some
senior public affairs officers and attorneys also are trying to convince Air Force officials
to "loosen up" their interpretation of laws and regulations that traditionally have muzzled
the Air Force from telling its side of the story. 136
The first rule of many crisis communicators is borrowed from the Boy Scouts: be
prepared. 137 This is doubly true in a crisis where there is "little time for group meetings
or consensus."138 Over and over again this sort of statement is echoed:
"advocates can avoid turf problems during crises by establishing a positive
relationship before crisis strikes"'39
"when legal proceedings begin, particularly those involving high-profile
individuals, a strategy concerning the media must be jointly planned"140
"encourage management to involve its corporate lawyers early in the crisis
planning process ... it is then possible to set guidelines for what can and
cannot be said when a crisis does happen"141
135 Ivy, Jack, Air University director of public affairs, personal telephone conversation,
21 Jan. 1998.
136 Whitaker, Johnny, Air Combat Command Director of Public Affairs, personal email,
12 Nov. 1997.
137 "Crisis Public Relations," Dun's Business Month, Aug. 1983: 50.
138 Budd, 13.
139 Fitzpatrick, "Ten Guidelines for Reducing Legal Risks in Crisis Management," 34.
140 Roschwalb and Stack, 5.
141 Birch, 32.
"the necessity of merging law and public relations leads to an even greater
need for pre-crisis planning by representatives in both fields" 142
commanders, staff judge advocates and public affairs officers must "work
together at every step" 143
Similarly, Air Force attorney James Swanson has stated that "it has never been more
critical for judge advocates and public affairs officers, under the direction of
commanders, to formulate and pre-plan cohesive media responses that tell the Air Force
story as completely and persuasively as possible, yet at the same time do not impinge
upon or impair the judicial process. That is a balance, I am convinced, that can be
struck."144 But given the importance of planning, a 1995 survey of public relations
practitioners found that less than 60% "worked in organizations with written crisis
plans."145 Although this is up 10% from a similar survey conducted 10 years ago, it is
unknown how many of the crisis plans actually encourage cooperation between lawyers
and communicators. Similarly, although nearly all Air Force public affairs offices have
what are known as "crash kits" which include detailed plans for aircraft accidents, natural
disasters and other such crises, it is unknown how many offices have a corresponding
plan for dealing with legal crises like high-visibility courts martial and criminal
142 Fearn-Banks, 99.
145 Guth, David, "Organizational Crisis Experience and Public Relations Roles," Public
Relations Review, Summer 1995: 132 as cited in Woods, 4.
The literature regarding conflict theory examines the variables that affect the
course of conflict, including the characteristics of the parties in conflict, their prior
relationship to one another, the nature of the issue giving rise to the conflict, the social
environment within which the conflict occurs, the interested audiences to the conflict, the
strategy and tactics employed by the parties in the conflict, and the consequences of the
conflict to each of the participants and to other interested parties. Conflict resolution can
take several different forms -- among them forcing (win-lose), compromise (lose-lose), or
problem-solving (win-win) -- which determines whether the results will be productive or
destructive. Problem-solving methods are the most likely to achieve productive
consequences, and organizations can use various techniques to encourage such behavior
including the sharing of information; the review and adjustment of the conditions that
promote cooperation versus conflict; the review and adjustment of the perception,
feelings and attitudes between parties; mutual determination of the problem,
nonjudgmental generation of potential solutions; evaluation of the solutions; and
agreement on the final decision.
The literature shows conflict can and does occur between public relations
professionals and lawyers, especially during crises, and that there are advantages and
disadvantages to using either a strictly legal or a strictly public relations response. As
conflict theory suggests, the best results occur when a combined approach is used by
lawyers and public relations people who work closely together in cooperation. Although
much of the research regarding the relationship between lawyers and public relations
people in corporate service is self-reported by public relations people themselves, it
indicates that a relatively good relationship exists, but that problems still remain which
can affect how an organization fares in both a court of law and the court of public
opinion. Professionals and researchers from both areas agree that interdisciplinary
training among lawyers and public relations practitioners and planning between the two
before crises occur are needed to improve the relationship, further validating conflict
theorists who propose similar techniques to resolving conflict. The literature review also
suggests possible characteristics of conflict (different objectives, the withholding of
information, lack of education or training regarding the other side's area of expertise,
competition over saying too much versus saying too little, lawyers encroaching on the
public relations function), ways to resolve such conflicts (forcing, compromising or
problems solving), and possible destructive or productive results.
There are no data on the relationship between Air Force public affairs and legal
functions. However, the literature review allows one to assume that, although in general
public affairs officers and judge advocates work well together, some conflict exists
between the two functions that may result in destructive consequences for the Air Force
as a whole. This study itself generated conflict between the two functions at the highest
Air Force level when the legal community refused to officially support the research
because some feared the survey questions had the potential of "artificially creating a
perception that PA and JA offices are 'opponents' when it comes to public relations
issues." 146 Using conflict theory as a model, destructive results occur when the Air
Force as a whole loses in a court of law, the court of public opinion, or both; and
productive results occur when the Air Force wins in both courts. Finally the literature
suggests ways to encourage organizations to limit the destructive effects of conflict and
use problem-solving techniques. Such tactics include meetings between the two to adjust
perceptions and attitudes, interdisciplinary education and/or training, information sharing,
joint planning, discussion of alternative solutions, and building consensus.
However, these assumptions should be explored further because the literature
does not indicate what actually holds true for the U.S. Air Force. Specific questions need
to be answered before making recommendations on how to improve the relationship
between the two so that the Air Force, as an organization, is better served. The questions
include the following: What are the characteristics and frequency of conflict between the
two? How is such conflict usually resolved? What are the usual results to the Air Force
as a whole? And finally, how can the Air Force decrease the amount of conflict between
public affairs and legal functions or productively resolve existing conflicts?
146 Hawley, Bryan, Air Force Judge Advocate General, Memorandum to the Air Force
Director of Public Affairs, 3 Nov. 1997.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Research Design and Sampling
An on-line survey was conducted of Air Force public affairs officers, judge
advocates and commanders. At the time of the survey, approximately 400 public affairs
officers, 1,300 judge advocates and 160 commanders (wing level and above) were serving
on active duty in the Air Force. Population lists with name, rank and location were
provided by the Air Force, and a census was taken of the public affairs officers and
commanders. A random sample of approximately 425 judge advocates was taken using
skip increments. After the judge advocate sample was taken, the researcher realized that
the population list provided by Air Force did not include any generals. Since the most
senior lawyers would likely have the most impact on Air Force policy, the researcher
added the names of these five officers to the random sample.
A few design concerns existed. A recent survey of mailing lists by a commercial
firm found only 37% of electronic mail addresses were accurate at any given time. 1 And
although another company which develops and markets electronic-survey software and
1 Compton, David, Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs Technology Team,
personal email, 18 Jun 1997.
services reported between 70 and 80 percent of email addresses are accurate,2 the
researcher was concerned that some members of the survey populations would not be
reachable through electronic mail because they lack Internet access or because of out-of-
date electronic email addresses. To attempt to alleviate this concern, the researcher
traveled to the Pentagon to compile electronic mail addresses via phone and using
existing email address books. By doing so, the researcher was able to obtain what he
believed to be correct email addresses for 372 public affairs officers, 387 judge advocates
and 163 commanders. Even so, when the researcher sent the survey emails out three
weeks later, approximately 15% were returned as undeliverable. Still, this was a
improvement over the percentage of email addresses that are typically accurate in
electronic surveys. After the emails were sent out, the researcher encountered what may
be inevitable in an online survey conducted without the use of respondent identification
and password security options. A few respondents asked the researcher if they could
encourage others in their office or at their military installation to fill out the
questionnaires too. The researcher granted the requests provided only those in the target
population filled out the questionnaires. For example, when a lawyer asked if he could
refer other lawyers in his office to the survey web site, the researcher asked that he only
refer active-duty legal officers-not civilians or enlisted personnel-to ensure the integrity
of the survey population. To the researcher's knowledge, this added seven names to the
judge advocate sample. However, the researcher had no way of knowing exactly how
often this happened, since survey recipients may have referred others to the web site
2 Rudd, Robert, Decisive Technology Corporation, personal email, 9 Dec. 1997.
without informing him. As a result of undeliverable emails and the knowledge of some
people being referred to the survey, the final survey samples were 340 public affairs
officers (85% of the total population), 316 judge advocates (23% of the total population)
and 134 commanders (82% of the total population).
Another design concern was that subjects might have difficulty responding
because of random computer problems such as one or more computer servers being down
for service, busy phone lines to connect to a service provider, etc. To address this
concern, the researcher gave recipients nearly four weeks to respond so that most should
have been able to connect and complete the survey even if such random computer
problems existed at their first attempt. The researcher received 13 emails from survey
recipients who were having problems accessing the web site, but the researcher asked
them to keep trying, and since the researcher only received feedback from two of those
individuals indicating they could not connect to the web site after further tries, indications
are that most of these people eventually were able to connect. The researcher sent these
two remaining recipients email versions of the survey (with the questions as part of the
email instead of on the web page), and received their input via a return email. The
researcher received one survey response via regular mail. The researcher received 18
blank, incomplete or duplicate survey forms, indicating that either an error occurred in the
transmission, the respondent sent the response before he/she was finished, or sent the
survey response twice. These responses were not coded.
A third concern was whether the response rate would be high enough to permit
generalization to the three populations. In hopes of increasing the response rates, the
researcher asked the Air Force's top public affairs officer and the senior judge advocate to
send out a joint message encouraging commanders and their subordinates to complete the
survey. However, because the Air Force Judge Advocate General decided not to
officially support the survey, he refused to provide any endorsement. Nevertheless, the
Air Force's Director of Public Affairs did send a message out to public affairs officers
prior to the questionnaires being sent out, and the researcher personally contacted major
command public affairs officers to urge them to encourage commanders and judge
advocates to participate. Two weeks into the survey the response rate was approximately
17% so the researcher sent out reminder emails to survey recipients.
A final design concern existed regarding the survey instruments themselves.
Since survey respondents were asked for self-reported information, one could suspect that
biased information might have been obtained. However, by asking similar questions
regarding conflict among all three groups of participants-public affairs officers, judge
advocates and commanders-the data obtained are more rigorous than would have been
the case had only one group been surveyed.
Each recipient received an electronic mail (Appendix A) from the researcher
"pointing" them to the web site where the survey was stored. After approximately two
weeks the researcher sent out reminder emails (Appendix B) to recipients to encourage
survey completion. A few days before the completed questionnaires were due, the
researcher also sent out a reminder message to The Air Force PA Forum, an online
discussion group of public affairs practitioners.
The three questionnaires (Appendix C) were developed based on the literature
review and from discussions with senior Air Force public affairs officers and judge
advocates. To achieve greater validity, the questions were a combination of specific
multiple choice and open-ended formats. A few questions were group specific regarding
knowledge of legal or public affairs topics, but most questions were general to all
recipients. Demographics and/or job knowledge questions were asked in Part 1 of the
questionnaires. Part 2 included questions about the frequency and characteristics of
conflict. Respondents were asked in Part 3 about how such conflict is usually resolved
and what the usual results of conflict are for the Air Force. Finally, Part 4 of the
questionnaires requested input from respondents on how to decrease conflict or resolve
conflict better. The instruments were pretested on one or two members of each group and
minor changes were made based on the feedback received. The questions generated
some conflict in the legal community because a few senior Air Force lawyers believed the
wording of some questions implied that destructive conflict necessarily exists between
public affairs and legal functions and that the win-lose terminology used by conflict
theorists was too confrontational. Based on this feedback, the researcher changed the
wording of two questions.
Coding and Data Analysis
A sample survey response is included as Appendix D. The structure of the web
survey and a common gateway interface program allowed the submitted information from
respondents to be automatically converted into numerical data, which then was mailed
electronically to the researcher. The researcher then put this content into a data base and
analyzed it using statistical computer software. While most of the data were analyzed
using descriptive statistics and frequencies, some relationships were tested as post hoc
The common gateway interface transmitted the responses to open-ended questions
verbatim as text in the electronic mail sent to the researcher. The researcher coded these
data into categories which were pretested by an independent coder. The pretest, using
one open-ended answer from each survey population, yielded a coefficient of reliability of
88%, using the equations C.R. = 2M/(Ni+N2) where M is the number of coding decisions
made in agreement, N1 is the number of coding decisions made by the researcher and N2
is the number of coding decisions made by the independent coder.3 Although this
method does not account for the level of agreement by chance alone, the researcher
determined this method was the most realistically feasible because of the high number of
responses and categories from the open-ended data.
Following the pretest, the researcher and the independent coder each individually
categorized the 220 open-ended responses, yielding an initial 75% agreement rate.
Following a second detailed review of the open-ended data and the coding sheets by both
the researcher and the independent coder, each made a number of coding changes,
resulting in a final 96% agreement rate. The researcher acknowledges that such a large
increase in agreement may seem atypical. However, each disagreement from the first
3 Holsti, Ole, Content Analysis for the Social Sciences and Humanities, (Reading, Mass:
Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1969) 141.
coding procedure was reviewed by the researcher and the independent coder. The
subsequent changes were a result of the following:
The researcher and the independent coder neglected to find some of the
categories during the first coding procedure. With more than 200 answers to
code, ranging from one sentence to more than a page and each with an average
of three themes per answer, this was not surprising.
It became obvious that, for at least two questions, the categories derived by the
researcher were not as mutually exclusive as they could have been resulting
in some coding disagreements during the first coding procedure. When this
was discovered, the researcher clarified the meaning of the categories so that
they became mutually exclusive.
Some answers or categories were difficult for the independent coder to
understand, due to military jargon, resulting in some disagreement during the
first coding session. The researcher explained the meaning of these words so
that the independent coder could understand.
Despite the large increase in agreement, there were some coding decisions that continued
to be disagreed over and each individual held firm to his original decisions. After these
coding discussions occurred, the researcher used his own coding decisions for analysis.
Pertinent quotes also were taken from the open-ended data to be used in the final chapter.
The researcher received 248 responses or 31% of the total number of questionnaires sent
out (790). The public affairs response rate was 38% (130 responses), the commander
response rate was 38% (51 responses), and the judge advocate response rate was 21% (67
Response rates from electronic surveys are not easy to predict. In addition to limitations
associated with mail surveys, electronic surveys are dependent on recipients' experience
with computers and technology.4 In this case, recipients were expected to have a
familiarity with the Internet. Although most Air Force personnel by now have become
accustomed to conducting business on the web, the researcher likely lost a few
respondents with the extra step of requiring respondents to go from email to a web site.
The response rate also is affected by the length of the survey, the amount of time given to
fill out the survey, the respondents' connection to the survey topic, whether any incentive
was given and whether any follow-up reminders were sent. Decisive Technology
Corporation has received a 15-40 percent response rate for an electronic survey sent with
no incentives and no follow-up reminders and a 20-45 percent response rate for a similar
survey sent with both an incentive and follow-up reminders.5 Their response rate from
an electronic survey most similar to the researcher, with no incentive and one follow-up
reminder, yielded 30%. These comparisons show that the researcher's response rate of
31% is comparable to the rate received by others conducting electronic surveys.
Additionally, Dr. Marshall Rice, a professor of market research at York University,
believes that a response rate of more than 30% is "excellent."6 However with only 32%
of all public affairs officers, 31% of all commanders and 5% of all judge advocates
6 Rice, Marshall, York University Associate Professor of Marketing, personal email 8
having responded, the data cannot necessarily be generalized to any of the three survey
populations. Still, the data gathered were useful in determining what some members of
the survey populations thought about the relationship between public affairs and judge
Of the 130 public affairs officers who responded, approximately half were
company-grade officers-lieutenants and captains-and half were field-grade officers-
majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and above (See Figure 4-1). Their years of public
affairs experience ranged from six months to 33 years, with a mean of 10 years. Of the
67 judge advocates who responded, more than half were field grade officers and the
remainder were company-grade officers. Their years of legal experience ranged from one
to 30 years, with a mean of 11 years.
Public Affairs Officer Rank
Judge Advocate Rank
Of the 51 commanders who responded nearly 65% were at the wing level (usually
each Air Force base has one wing commander who is in charge at that installation), 18%
were at the numbered air force level (in charge of many Air Force bases), 16% were at the
major command level (in charge of a few numbered Air Forces) and 2% were at the
unified command level (one of the highest military commands containing all types of
service members Air Force, Army, Navy, etc.). Their years of command experience
ranged from one to 33 years, with a mean of 7 years.
The public affairs and judge advocate respondents were asked about their
knowledge of areas involving legal and public affairs issues. Both appeared to be more
familiar with The Privacy Act and The Freedom of Information Act but less familiar with
other issues that are common to both functions (See Table 4-1 and 4-2).
Public Affairs Officer Knowledge Of... Not At All Somewhat Very
Familiar Familiar Familiar
Civil Litigation 25% 69% 7%
Military Justice System 2% 73% 25%
Criminal Investigations 12% 75% 13%
Censorship 9% 52% 39%
The Privacy Act 48% 52%
The Freedom of Information Act 57% 43%
Judge Advocate Knowledge Of... Not At All Somewhat Very
Familiar Familiar Familiar
Media Relations 12% 66% 22%
DoD Principles of Information 49% 34% 16%
Censorship 21% 48% 31%
The Privacy Act 2% 48% 51%
The Freedom of Information Act 46% 54%
When asked if their offices had any crisis communication plans that specifically
dealt with legal issues such as high visibility courts martial and investigations, the
majority (69%) of public affairs respondents said they did not (See Figure 4-2).
Have PA plans for legal crises?
------- I T l Blank
Frequency and Characteristics of Conflict
Public Affairs and Judge Advocate respondents indicated similarly how much
conflict exists between the two functions. However, the commander respondents
believed conflict occurred much less (See Table 4-3). The majority of all three groups
said that there was more conflict during a crisis (See Table 4-4).
How Much Conflict Exists Between PA and JA?
Respondents Never Rarely Sometimes Usually Always
Public Affairs Officers 4% 33% 47% 15% 1%
Judge Advocates 2% 37% 49% 10% 2%
Commanders 10% 57% 33%
Combined Data 4% 39% 45% 11% 1%
Is there more conflict during a crisis?
Respondents Yes No The Same N/A
Public Affairs Officers 47% 25% 25% 2%
Judge Advocates 63% 19% 16% 2%
Commanders 39% 35% 22% 4%
Combined Data 50% 26% 22% 2%
All respondents were asked to identify the major characteristics of conflict
between public affairs and legal functions. It appeared that different missions, objectives
and priorities of the two functions; balancing the "right to know" and privacy rights; and
the media environment characterized much of the conflict between the two (See Table 4-
5). Approximately four percent of all respondents thought this question was "not
Major characteristics of conflict between public affairs and legal functions
Respondents Rank Different Media Lack of Balancing Lack of
Disparity missions, Environ Info "right to education
objectives, -ment Sharin know" n and
priorities g and training
Public 16% 64% 67% 40% 69% 44%
Judge 2% 68% 52% 28% 42% 55%
Commanders 2% 57% 49% 28% 67% 26%
Combined 9% 63% 59% 34% 61% 43%
Approximately 25% of the public affairs respondents indicated that "other"
characteristics of conflict existed. These responses were coded into 15 categories (See
"Other" Major Characteristics of Conflict Between PA and JA Number of PA
Who Gave This
JA hesitates to release information or doesn't provide timely, accurate, 7
Disagreement between PA and JA and between armed services regarding 6
interpretation of regulations, policies and/or The Privacy Act
Media and/or defense attorney actions create environment where AF cannot 5
respond without jeopardizing the legal process or an individual's rights
PA and JA inherently have different objectives, goals, tactics, behaviors 4
PA doesn't understand JA and/or JA doesn't understand PA 4
Disparity of experience, rank, credibility between PA and JA and they are 4
JA doesn't care about public opinion during a court case or JA doesn't 3
understand that they can win in court but lose in the court of public opinion
and hurt the Air Force
Commanders think legal issues are more important than PA issues 2
Media environment creates time constraints 2
JA and/or other agencies don't share information with PA 2
Court of law rules are more solid, court of public opinion rules are not 1
Coordination with HQ causes delays 1
JA is intimidated by media issues 1
JA doesn't want to be in front of the camera even though they're the legal 1
Inexperienced PA people don't have ability to mange the information 1
Approximately 22% of the judge advocate respondents indicated that "other"
characteristics of conflict existed. These responses were classified into 11 categories (See
"Other" Major Characteristics of Conflict Between PA and JA Number of JA
Disagreements over what information is releasable and what 2
information should be withheld
Disparity of experience, rank, and/or credibility between PA and JA 2
PA doesn't understand JA and/or JA doesn't understand PA 2
Judicial concerns/privacy rights/undue influence vs. "the right of the 2
public to know"
Media and/or defense attorney actions create environment where the 1
Air Force cannot respond without jeopardizing the legal process or
an individual's rights
PA's goal is to give everything to the media 1
Other conflict exists in addition to military justice: contract, labor, 1
PA doesn't coordinate with JA regarding legal matters 1
PA wants simple/fast answers 1
The release of information compromises legal work 1
The transitory nature of both PAO's and reporters prevents good 1
Approximately 17% of the commander respondents indicated that "other"
characteristics of conflict existed. These responses were classified into five categories
(See Table 4-8).
"Other" Major Characteristics of Conflict Between PA and JA Number of
Who Gave This
Conflict exists when commanders allows it to exist-failure of 2
Reluctance to be candid because of political factors 1
PA and JA inherently have different objectives, goals, tactics, 1
Fear of lawsuits 1
Tendency to withhold information to protect the accused 1
When the "other" categories from all three groups were combined for this
question, six themes were found to be the most frequently occurring (See Table 4-9).
Additionally, 10 respondents indicated that little or no conflict existed between public
affairs and legal functions.
"Other" Major Characteristics of Conflict Between PA and JA Number of ALL
Who Gave This
JA hesitates to release information or doesn't provide timely, 7
accurate, understandable information
Media and/or defense attorney actions create environment where the 7
AF cannot respond without jeopardizing the legal process or an
individual's rights-tendency to withhold information to protect the
Disagreement between PA and JA and between armed services 6
regarding interpretation of regulations, policies and/or The Privacy
PA doesn't understand JA and/or JA doesn't understand PA 6
Disparity of experience, rank, credibility between PA and JA and 6
they are treated differently
PA and JA inherently have different objectives, goals, tactics, 5
How Conflict Is Usually Resolved
Survey respondents were asked how conflict between public affairs and legal
functions is usually resolved. The majority of all the respondents felt that conflicts
between the two were resolved through consensus where both sides were satisfied with
the decision. However, the data also show that, during conflicts, the legal course of
action is taken 25 times more often than the public affairs course of action (See Table 4-
10). Approximately 11% of all the respondents said this question was "not applicable"
and one percent did not answer the question.
How is conflict between PA and JA usually resolved?
PA course of JA course of Compromise: Consensus:
Respondents action is taken action is taken Both sides are Both sides
(win-lose) (win-lose) unsatisfied are satisfied
Public Affairs 2% 28% 12% 52%
Judge 2% 24% 18% 40%
Commanders 18% 10% 55%
Combined 1% 25% 13% 49%
Respondents also were asked what the usual results were for the Air Force as a
whole after a conflict between legal and public affairs has been resolved. While 22% of
respondents felt this question was "not applicable" and one percent did not answer the
question, the majority of those who did respond indicated that, following a conflict
between legal and public affairs functions, the Air Force usually achieves its legal goals
but loses public support. Only 31% thought the Air Force achieves its legal goals and
wins public support following a conflict between the two (See Table 4-11).
Wins public Achieves legal Loses public Wins public
Respondents support but goals but support and support and
does not loses public does not achieves legal
achieve legal support (win- achieve legal goals (win-win)
goals (win- lose) goals (lose-
Public Affairs 2% 42% 5% 31%
Judge 27% 19% 25%
Commanders 31% 8% 37%
Combined 1% 36% 9% 31%
How To Decrease Conflict or Better Resolve Conflict
All respondents were asked to suggest ways to decrease conflict between public
affairs and legal functions or how to better resolve conflict. They suggested that the best
ways to do so are to have interdisciplinary education/training for public affairs officers
and judge advocates; encourage more joint planning and information sharing; and to
clarify the policies regarding the release of information and privacy rights (See Table 4-
12). Approximately two percent of all respondents thought the question was "not
How To Decrease Conflict or Better Resolve Conflict
Respondents Educatio More Clarify Joint Meetings More Do
n and info policies Planning to adjust consensus what is
Training sharing feelings, building best
attitudes, for the
Public 72% 67% 58% 63% 44% 48% 58%
Judge 66% 57% 51% 72% 40% 39% 40%
Commanders 47% 43% 57% 51% 28% 33% 49%
Combined 65% 59% 56% 63% 40% 42% 51%
More than 20% of public affairs respondents indicated that "other" ways to
decrease conflict existed. These responses were coded into 18 categories (See Table 4-
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of PA
Who Gave This
Interdisciplinary education and/or training between PA and JA 7
More communication/respect/understanding between PA and JA 5
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of PA
Do what is best for the Air Force" not what is best for PA, JA or individuals 4
Need to get the Air Force side of the story out without damaging legal case 4
Realize the importance of public opinion 3
Educate commanders on PA/JA issues 3
Educate PA's on how to establish good relationship with commanders and to 2
establish themselves despite rank/credibility disparity with JA
Change the Uniform Code of Military Justice 1
Clarification of guidance and regulations regarding release of information, 1
especially during high-visibility cases
Keep military community informed through internal information 1
Be forthcoming with information lay out all the facts 1
Create PA/JA positions) and fill with dual-trained persons) 1
Take the initiative after trials are over to get Air Force side of the story out 1
Do case studies to find out the best ways to handle disciplinary cases 1
Control the message going out to the public 1
JA needs to realize that releasing information is not a case-by-case decision 1
Planning ahead of time 1
Use a 3rd-party PR person when the Air Force's hands are tied and they can't 1
Nine percent of judge advocate respondents indicated that "other" ways to
decrease conflict existed. These responses were classified into seven categories (See
Table 4-14). Additionally, one respondent said that the questionnaire options for this
question were "touchy-feely but not particularly helpful."
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of
Planning before a crisis occurs 1
Higher rank for PAO's 1
Explain military laws and information release policies to the media/public 1
Better coordination between JA and PA 1
PA shouldn't be the only ones to decide what is "in the best interests of the Air 1
Better understanding of what the commander wants to do 1
Information should not be released if it will jeopardize legal proceedings 1
Approximately 25% of the commander respondents indicated that "other" ways to
decrease conflict existed. These responses were classified into seven categories (See
Table 4-15). When the "other" categories from all three groups were combined for this
question, six themes were found to be the most frequently occurring (See Table 4-16).
Additionally, six respondents said that little or no conflict exists between public affairs
and legal functions.
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of Commander
Respondents Who Gave
Commanders are the ones responsible for JA and PA decisions and 6
for ensuring a good relationship between the two and they need to
be educated on JA/PA issues
More meetings, communications, understanding between PA and 2
PA and/or JA need to share information more 1
Civilian appointees need military perspective 1
JA needs to stop withholding information 1
PA needs to stop speculating and admit wrongdoing if it's true 1
Do case studies to find out the best way to handle legal cases 1
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of ALL
Who Gave This
Commanders are the ones responsible for JA and PA decisions and for 9
ensuring a good relationship between the two and/or commanders need to
be educated on JA/PA issues
More meetings, communication, coordination, respect/understanding 8
between PA and JA
Interdisciplinary education and/or training between PA and JA 7
Do what is in the "best interest of the Air Force" not what is best for PA, JA 4
"Other" Ways to Decrease Conflict Between PA and JA Number of ALL
Who Gave This
Need to get the AF side of the story out without damaging legal proceedings 4
Realize the importance of public opinion 3
Finally, respondents were asked if they had any other thoughts about how to
improve the relationship between public affairs and legal functions. Half of the public
affairs respondents gave input to this question. The answers then were coded into 19
categories (See Table 4-17).
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship between Number of PA
PA and JA Respondents Who
Gave This Answer
Planning, meetings, communication and understanding/respect are 16
JA and PA need interdisciplinary education/training and/or need to 15
Both PA and JA need to be open minded and willing to compromise, 11
work as a team toward consensus and what is best for the Air Force
The need to protect the legal system and people's individual rights 11
during a legal case hurts the Air Force in the court of public opinion.
Need to be able to respond to media queries before/during a trial.
The AF needs to review/clarifylaws/regulations/policies/instructions/
rules on releasing information, especially new media/legal
environments. The Air Force should come up with some guidance on
how to handle high-visibility legal cases.
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship Number of PA
between PA and JA Respondents
The relationship between PA and JA is determined by the commander-need 10
to educate him/her and other regarding JA and/or PA functions)
JA thinks legal is the most important and/or JA needs to be willing to listen to 6
PA advice when deciding legal stuff and need to be available to PA and
provide them timely information
There is a disparity in rank/pay/credibility between PA and JA 5
Should do some case studies of how legal cases have been handled and/or 5
study how civilian PR companies compare to PA in how the handle
Commanders need to respect PA as much as JA
Include others besides JA in public affairs training-defense counsel, office of 2
special investigations, etc. and include PA training at professional military
HQ is too involved in base-level release of information 1
The threat of litigation will always cause conflict 1
PA and JA should be located in the same building together 1
JA is concrete and based on the law; PA is fuzzy and based on public opinion 1
Need 3rd-party arbitrator because PA and JA are always opposed 1
Other organizations have conflict with PA also: operations, command, etc. 1
There are already steps being taken in JA community to become educated on 1
PA's need to be willing to withhold information when appropriate 1
AF interpretation of The Privacy Act/other information regulations differ 1
from other services
More than 45% of the judge advocate respondents gave input to this question.
The answers were classified into 20 categories (See Table 4-18). Additionally, one
respondent said that the questionnaire was not good and another said that the survey
"mischaracterized the attorney-client relationship."
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship Number of JA
between PA and JA Respondents
Who Gave This
JA and/or PA don't understand the other's functions-need to be educated or 9
trained in the other functions so they can see the bigger picture
More meetings, communication and understanding/respect are needed 7
between PA and JA
AF regulations on releasing information are too strict and we need to be able 5
to get facts of a case out to the public before/during a trial, especially if the
defendant has already gone public or if the case will draw media attention
Need to balance fair trial and privacy rights with the "right of the people to 4
The spokesperson in a situation should be whoever is the expert, not 3
necessarily the PA, and this person should be properly trained and prepared
Need clarification of policies/regulations/instructions on releasing 3
Hire PR experts or train PA to do PR so they can influence the media/public 3
Need to have plans to deal with legal cases 3
PA often is suspected of identifying with the media due to PA desire to "tell 3
all"-and in doing so, they are doing more harm to the Air Force than good
Every situation is unique-no hard/fast rules to resolve or eliminate PA/JA 2
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship Number of JA
between PA and JA Respondents
JA needs to respond faster to requests for information 2
Need to consider PA implications of legal decision 2
Other issues besides criminal cases create conflict between JA and PA 1
PAO's think they're lawyers 1
Sometimes getting information out is more important than the court martial 1
Need faster HQ coordination 1
Need more quality people in JA and/or PA 1
Junior or mid-level enlisted people should not be spokespersons 1
Problems between PA and JA exist in the other services too 1
PA needs to do its own Freedom of Information work instead of having JA 1
More than half of the commander respondents gave input to this question. The
answers were classified into 13 categories (See Table 4-19). One commander said that
the survey questions were "leading" and another said that question options were not
realistic. When the "other" categories from all three groups were combined for this
question, six themes were found to be the most frequently occurring (See Table 4-20).
Additionally, 21 respondents said that little or no conflict exists between public affairs
and legal functions.
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship Number of
between PA and JA Commander
There should be more involvement in the relationship between JA and PA 7
There is a lack of information sharing/communication between PA and JA. 5
They should meet more to plan ahead, talk more-especially about specific
cases, and understand each other's perspective and responsibilities
Need PA and JA to work as a team in determining what is in the best 4
interest of the Air Force
JA and PA need to have interdisciplinary education/training to learn about 4
JA thinks only of legal issues-they need to have an understanding of the 2
The relationship between JA and PA is situational-depends on each 2
There needs to be a balance between legal concerns and the "right of public 2
to know." The Air Force must be able to balance media coverage
before/during a trial
PA needs to quit speculating and/or needs to listen to JA more 2
PA and JA inherently have different goals/objectives 2
JA is more experienced and has a well-defined job that is accountable to 1
the law, hence a conservative approach. PA does not have a well-defined
job and is accountable to public opinion which is static
The military justice system is fair and not usually subject to political 1
PA should be involved in any legal case which could draw media attention 1
JA needs to let information be released
"Other" Thoughts on How to Improve the Relationship Number of ALL
between PA and JA Respondents
Who Gave This
Planning, meetings, communication and understanding/respect are key to a 31
good relationship and/or there is a lack of information sharing going on
JA and PA need interdisciplinary education/training and/or need to exercise 28
The need to protect the legal system and people's individual rights during a 25
legal case hurts the AF in the court of public opinion. Need to be able to
respond to media queries before/during a trial. The Air Force needs to
review/clarify laws/regulations/policies/instructions/ rules on releasing
information, especially new media/legal environments. The Air Force
should some up with some guidance on how to handle high-visibility legal
cases. Need to balance the "right to know" with the right to fair legal
proceedings and individual's rights
The relationship between PA and JA is determined by the commander 17
need to educate him/her and other regarding JA and/or PA functionss.
There needs to be more commander involvement in the relationship.
Both PA and JA need to be open minded and willing to compromise, work 15
as a team toward consensus and what is best for the AF
JA thinks legal is the most important and/or JA needs to be willing to listen 13
to PA advice when deciding legal stuff and need to be available to PA and
provide them timely information
Post Hoc Analysis
The researcher examined the relationships between the amount of conflict and
rank, years of public affairs, legal or command experience, job knowledge and whether or
not an office had public affairs plans for dealing with legal issues. Only three
relationships appeared to be statistically significant. However, given these small sample
sizes and relatively low response rates, the data cannot be rigorously inferred to the
The first statistically significant relationship found was between the familiarity of
public affairs officers with criminal investigations and the frequency of conflict between
public affairs and legal functions (chi-square = 15.9, p = .043) the more familiar public
affairs officers were with this topic, the more frequent the conflict. Two other significant
relationships uncovered were between the familiarity of judge advocates with censorship
and media relations and the frequency of conflict (censorship chi-square = 16.2, p = .038;
media relations chi square = 16.6, p = .035) the more familiar judge advocates were
with these topics, the more frequent the conflict.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The findings support previous literature which indicates that, although public
relations practitioners and lawyers do work well together, conflict between the two does
exist which can have a negative impact on an organization as a whole. Some of this
conflict, as theorists have stated for years, is inherent in any relationship and can have
both productive and negative consequences.
Overall, the researcher was satisfied with the response rates from both the public
affairs officers and commanders-38% each. This shows these two groups perhaps
identified with the research topic and had opinions and concerns they wanted to share. In
particular, the researcher was surprised that so many commanders participated in the
survey because he suspected that this group, due to the tremendous time constraints on
chief executive officers, would have the lowest response rate. Quite the contrary
occurred. Not only did a large number of commanders respond, but many indicated that
the relationship between public affairs and legal functions was the responsibility of the
commander and that he/she needed to be educated on PA/JA issues and actively involved
in the relationship.
However, the researcher was disappointed in the low response rate (21%) from the
legal community. This could have occurred for several reasons. First, the judge
advocates may not have identified as much with the research topic. Second, these data
and the literature suggest that lawyers often have the upper hand when dealing with
public affairs issues, due to a credibility or power gap between the two functions.
Although the researcher received valuable information from many lawyers, some
attorneys may not have not been willing to discuss an issue which might result in their
losing the control they already have over the relationship. Third, because the survey was
not endorsed by the senior Air Force judge advocate, there may have been less incentive
among Air Force attorneys to participate.
Frequency and Characteristics of Conflict
Both lawyer and public affairs groups were very similar in the amount of conflict
perceived, which corresponds almost exactly to the data Fitzpatrick gathered in a survey
of public relations practitioners. In her study, more than 40% of respondents said the
relationship was "excellent," and in this study approximately 40% of respondents said
that conflict "rarely" or "never" existed. Similarly, in the Fitzpatrick study approximately
15% of respondents said the relationship was "fair" or "poor," and in this study 16% of
public affairs officers and 12% of lawyers said that conflict "usually" or "always" existed.
Interestingly, commanders saw the least amount of conflict in the relationship. This
could be because many conflicts may be resolved between public affairs and legal
functions without commander involvement. However during crises, which necessarily
involve more commander involvement, the majority of all three samples indicated that
And just as many of Fitzpatrick's respondents indicated they had a lack of
knowledge regarding some legal topics, there appears to be a knowledge gap with Air
Force public affairs officers also. Although they indicated that they are well-versed in
Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act issues, 75% said they were "not at all" or
only "somewhat" familiar with the military justice system and 87% said the same about
their familiarity with criminal investigations, two areas that increasingly have public
affairs implications. The same was true for the judge advocate respondents. Although
they appeared to have a good working knowledge of Privacy Act and Freedom of
Information Act issues, 78% said they were "not at all" or only "somewhat" familiar with
media relations and 83% said the same about the DoD Principles of Information which
provide the foundation for the military's information release policies. But although
knowledge of the other's function is important to both communicators and lawyers, these
data indicate that an increase in knowledge will not translate necessarily to a decrease in
conflict. In fact, this analysis shows that, depending on the topic, more knowledge could
increase the amount of conflict. The researcher is unsure why this occurred. It could be
that, as one becomes more familiar with a given topic and more confident in one's own
knowledge, he or she is less willing to compromise.
The combined data from all three samples reflected similar characteristics of
conflict between public affairs and legal functions. There was a recognition that some
conflict is inevitable due to competing objectives, goals, etc. However, the release of
information seemed to be a major source of conflict. More than 60% said that the
balance between the "right of the public to know" and privacy rights or the right to fair
legal proceedings contributed to conflict and nearly as many said that the current media
environment did also. These two characteristics go hand in hand and feed off each other
as many recent high-visibility court cases have shown. Making the situation worse may
be a lack of education, training or information sharing between the two fields. Many
respondents admitted they did not know as much about the other function as they should.
And although the public affairs respondents were the ones who more frequently
acknowledged a disparity in rank, credibility, pay and treatment between themselves and
lawyers, some Air Force attorneys and commanders mentioned these discrepancies as
How is Conflict Usually Resolved?
The public affairs respondents saw more consensus (win-win) results from
conflicts with the legal community than did the lawyers, although both agreed that
approximately 43% of the time there is a win-lose or a lose-lose resolution to a conflict,
where either the public affairs or the legal counsel is taken or a compromise is made
where both sides are unsatisfied with the decision. Combining the data from all three
samples, one sees that about half of the time conflict is resolved through a win-win
solution. The fact that the two experience lose-lose or win-lose results nearly 40% of the
time shows that there is room for improvement in how conflicts are resolved. But what is
even more significant is that the respondents felt that legal counsel is heeded more than
the public affairs counsel by a factor of 25 to 1.
That being said, the researcher believes it is not important whether public affairs
or legal wins or loses in any given situation, unless the result is a loss for the Air Force.
But, these data indicate that the Air Force may only experience a win-win result-win
public support and achieve its legal goals-30% of the time following a conflict between
public affairs and legal functions. Thirty-six percent of the time the Air Force achieves
its legal goals but does not win public support (win-lose), less than one percent of the
time the service wins public support but does not achieve its legal goals (win-lose), and
nine percent of the time loses public support and does not achieve its legal goals (lose-
lose). When one looks at the previous data on how conflicts between the two functions
are resolved, there is a similar disparity in the percentage of times the legal counsel is
taken over the public affairs counsel or when a compromise is made between the two
where both are still unsatisfied with the decision. So it appears that it does matter that
public affairs is losing while legal is winning because the Air Force as a whole is losing at
times when it could be winning.
More than 20% of all the respondents indicated that the question regarding the
usual results for the Air Force after a conflict between public affairs and legal functions
has been resolved was "not applicable." This could be for several reasons. Those who
felt there was rarely or never any conflict between the two may not have felt the question
applied to their situation. And, some may have not agreed with the "win-lose"
terminology used by the researcher, as a few wrote in their survey responses.
The findings do indicate there is a need for improvement in the relationship
between Air Force legal and public affairs functions. There is no way to remove all
conflict, nor is there a desire to since some conflict is healthy in any relationship. As
Gen. William Moorman, a senior Air Force lawyer wrote in his survey response:
There is in our Constitution an inherent tension between competing rights: my
freedom to say whatever comes to mind, and your freedom not to be panicked
when I yell 'fire' in a crowded theater when there is no fire, the public's right to
know what goes on within its government and the government's right to have its
internal decision-making process operate free from outside interference, one
person's right to put anything they want on the Internet and another's right not to
have their children exposed to graphic sexual material. This inherent tension is