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To Kill an Early Bird
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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Napoleon is supposed to have said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” It could be argued that the Pentagon’s now-defunct news-clipping service fits both aspects of this quote — it had its glory, but is now fading away as light into the dusk. Soon the service, called the Early Bird, will be all but forgotten, its ensuing obscurity making it as though it never existed.
 
The Early Bird, which had existed since the 1960s, had become the Pentagon’s primary news aggregation service, published daily with 30–40 relevant military and congressional news stories (forget the copyright issues for now). It was Defense Department’s answer to what academics call "environmental scanning." Originally designed just for very senior leaders, it morphed from a humble grouping of cut-and-pasted news clips distro’d to a handful of Generals, Admirals, and defense Secretaries to a full-on web-based product with a readership of over 1.5 million when it was abruptly snuffed out during the recent government shutdown. It was an archaic way of fitting the 21st century information age into a 20th century paradigm, but ultimately, its own size resulted in its demise.
 
You see, the "Bird," as many people affectionately called it, had become not just an environmental scanning tool. Because of issues like the growth and diversity of its audience, which consisted of reporters, congress and their staffs, and other policy makers it had become both a goal and a source of angst that in some ways drove operations and created what we in the military call "staff churn," churn that was often a distraction. Public Affairs Officers around the world tried hard to appease not just top leaders but also people across the various staffs by either getting their organization's positive issues in a major international news source so the Bird would highlight them or by busting their butts to try and resolve an issue before it went to print and eventually into the Bird — which could result in everything from harsh phone calls to late nights trying to fix whatever issue made the bad news. Regardless, it had become a tool to either promote or shame various parts of DoD. It was no longer a relevant tool for situational awareness but rather one that fostered a habit of reactive decision making.
 
The story ends nicely though. In the wake of the Early Bird's death, DoD is taking a new turn. They haven’t given up on environmental scanning, but they have chosen to reinvent the product. They are narrowing the audience to just a few hundred top leaders and hopefully keeping the news stories few — again to the most relevant.
 
So what are the PR takeaways here? PR folks are supposed to be the eyes and ears of an organization, with one foot inside and another outside. This is done in numerous ways, from networking, to monitoring competitors to drawing leaders’ attention to important news stories. The end of this product is not Defense Department saying it doesn't value this important function, but that it found the service to not be doing what it was supposed to do — keeping top leadership informed.
 
Clips services are what they are, but this current information age brings a slew of concerns the PR person needs to consider. As a top PR advisor they should be deep in the information environment and providing feedback to the boss with context. There are services that can help with this but it's up to the PR person to know what info to provide, how to frame it and perhaps most importantly — who it should go to.


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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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