By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006; A20
U.S. military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid a two-year, $20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.
The contract calls for assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part of a program to provide "public relations products" that would improve coverage of the military command's performance, according to a statement of work attached to the proposal.
The request for bids comes at a time when Bush administration officials are publicly criticizing media coverage of the war in Iraq.
The proposal, which calls in part for extensive monitoring and analysis of Iraqi, Middle Eastern and American media, is designed to help the coalition forces understand "the communications environment." Its goal is to "develop communication strategies and tactics, identify opportunities, and execute events . . . to effectively communicate Iraqi government and coalition's goals, and build support among our strategic audiences in achieving these goals," according to the statement of work that is publicly available through the Web site http://www.fbodaily.com .
A public relations practitioner who asked for anonymity because he may be involved in a bid on the contract said that military commanders "are overwhelmed by the media out there and are trying to understand how to get their information out.
"They want it [news] to be received by audiences as it is transmitted [by them], but they don't like how it turns out," he said. As an example, he said, there are complaints that reports from Iraq sometimes quote Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr more than military commanders.
The proposal calls for monitoring "Iraqi, pan-Arabic, international and U.S. national and regional markets media in both Arabic and English." That includes broadcast and cable television outlets, the Pentagon channel, two wire services and three major U.S. newspapers: The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Monitors are to select stories that deal with specific issues, such as security, reconstruction activities, "high profile" coalition force activities and events in which Iraqi security forces are "in the lead." The monitors are to analyze stories to determine the "dissemination of key themes and messages" along with whether the "tone" is positive, neutral or negative.
The media outlets would be monitored for how they present coalition or anti-Iraqi force operations. That part of the proposal could reflect Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's often-stated concern that the media does not cover positive aspects of Iraq.
In a speech before the American Legion on Tuesday, Rumsfeld said that a search of leading newspapers revealed that a soldier punished for misconduct was written about "10 times" as often as the first recipient of the Medal of Honor in anti-terrorism efforts.
The proposal suggests a team of 12 to 18 people who would provide support for the coalition military command as well as the Iraqi government leadership.
Prospective contractors are also asked to propose four to eight public relations events per month, such as speeches or news conferences, including "preparation of likely questions and suggested answers, themes and messages as well as background, talking points."
An attempt yesterday to reach the contracting officer for this project was not successful. Bids are due Sept. 6, and the 24-month contract is scheduled to begin on Oct. 28.
The Rendon Group, which has represented organizations such as the Iraqi National Congress, currently holds a much smaller year-to-year contract with the military command in Iraq. That contract includes creating an Arabic version of the command's Web site, http://www.mnf-iraq.com .