The Kelly Flinn Spin Patrol
By Tony Capaccio
Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week.
When the Air Force's first female B-52 bomber pilot, 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, was photographed walking from a legal affairs building at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota on May 21, she was clutching a bouquet of roses.
Distributed by the Associated Press, the photo was widely printed accompanying stories about whether the 26-year-old junior officer would be court-martialed in the wake of her highly publicized affair.
To her public relations advisers, the roses were no accident. Rather, they were props in an aggressive, high-stakes campaign to build public support for the embattled officer. "We wanted to give her a sense of humanity," says Judith Webb, vice president of Atlanta-based Duffey Communications. "The flowers were a softening thing... It was a suggestion we made and something the family did."
But Don Flinn, the pilot's brother and the Flinn family's chief spokesman, says the truth is more mundane. According to him, the roses were plucked from the numerous bouquets delivered to the Minot media center by well-wishers, not part of a family media plan.
Regardless of whose idea they were, the roses illustrate perfectly the way that images often become the reality the public remembers. Such was the case with Kelly Flinn, who received a general discharge on May 22, but was not charged simply with adultery. She also was accused of the much more serious charges of disobeying a direct order (by continuing to see her lover), making a false statement and inappropriate fraternizing. She dodged a court-martial, likely dishonorable discharge and possible jail time.
Thanks to Flinn's adroit use of the media and the Air Force's flat-footed response, much of the coverage reinforced the perception, put forward by her family, attorney and PR counsel, that the pilot's crimes of the heart were hardly court-martial material.
"I think they had a very sophisticated plan," says Air Force Under Secretary Rudy de Leon. "They were able to frame the story early on."
"Until a case goes to court-martial, the Air Force was precluded from presenting its case," adds Maj. Joe LaMarca, an Air Combat Command press spokes-man who handled the Flinn case from Minot. "Our position was we were going to maintain the high moral ground... But Flinn could say whatever she wanted."
The feeble Air Force response left a news vacuum that the Flinns were only too happy to fill. The campaign, says Don Flinn, a strategic business planner, was built around "message points" and the family's belief that people would see the Air Force case as "ridiculous." Armed with these message points, the Flinns granted exclusive interviews in March to the Washington Post and CBS' "60 Minutes," two months in advance of Kelly Flinn's court-martial date.
Then in mid-April Duffey Communications was hired by the Flinns to answer hundreds of phone calls anticipated after the pieces were broadcast. Ultimately Duffey gave the Flinn family crisis-management advice, reshaped message points and coordinated follow-up interviews, according to Webb.
This was not, however, the case of a shell-shocked family desperately seeking the advice of PR pros. Rather, it was one of an angry family savvy enough to know press interest would be piqued and how to use that interest to its own advantage. "What we were trying to do," says Webb, "was constantly couch our advice in directions the family had chosen it wanted to go."
Don Flinn adds, "In any strategic plan of action, you can't just react based on the first time you hear something." To prepare Kelly Flinn, he and other family members acted as reporters, peppering her with the types of questions she would encounter. The pilot's extensive Air Force media training also prepared Lt. Flinn to face the cameras without flinching.
And it worked, big time. "It was an artful job," says Ron Martz, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's military affairs reporter, "a deliberate media campaign done on their part to put the spin on that the Air Force was guilty of using a double standard against Kelly Flinn," prosecuting her for offenses often ignored when committed by men.
The Duffey firm sought to remain in the shadows. "All along, we downplayed the fact that the Flinn family had hired PR counsel," wrote Webb and Duffey Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Duffey in the August issue of the newspaper PR Tactics. "We positioned our role to the media as such: We were assisting with the calls because the family was absolutely overwhelmed."
On April 28 the Washington Post published a front page story to the effect that the military was cracking down on adultery cases, followed the next day by an 86-inch profile in its Style section that was sympathetic to Flinn. Both were written by Post reporter Tamara Jones.
The Post later alluded to the "carefully orchestrated publicity campaign" on Flinn's behalf, without mentioning its own role in the assault.
Jones says that during her first meeting with the family in late February, "there was no discussion of any other media or a plan or anything like that." It was only after her articles appeared, according to Jones, that the PR campaign began in earnest. "I started to refer to the 'well-orchestrated media campaign' in later stories because, by then, such a campaign did exist."
After Jones' Style article appeared, the Flinns circulated a May 1 "Dear Friends" letter to a few hundred friends, business colleagues and politicians. Attached was a copy of the Style article and a notice that a "60 Minutes" piece was in the works. In addition, Duffey executives fired off press releases to 125 news organizations offering follow-up interviews and laying out how, in their view, the Air Force had botched the case.
But Don Flinn insists his sister's case was not one of media manipulation. "There's no way we could have manipulated... There was either a story or there wasn't... We were not getting justice in the military court system... We had to find another venue. The media ended up being that other venue."
The key to the campaign, which put the Air Force on the defensive, was getting the big three — the Post, the New York Times and "60 Minutes" — to weigh in with coverage reflecting the Flinn view, according to Don Flinn.
In the end, the public relations effort, and the pressure it brought to bear on the Air Force to settle for less than its most severe punishment, sent a clear message to news organizations that the tactics and techniques born on Madison Avenue have settled deep into Middle America.