PR in a War Zone: Building Trust in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province

First Lieutenant Ray Gobberg (front) in Zabul province, Afghanistan

Raymond Gobberg’s communications job is a bit different from the average PR pro’s. While you may travel to work by car or by train, Gobberg often climbs into a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle to make his rounds, but not before meeting with members of the travel team for a mission brief. He eschews a coat and tie for a protective vest and a fairly large weapon.

Gobberg, an Air Force first lieutenant, is in Afghanistan as an information operations officer on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). He works in Zabul—the birthplace of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar—where there is rarely electricity and one paved road. His mission is to mentor Afghan government communicators—spokespeople, line directors, media pros and other government officials—and connect them with the people of Zabul province.

Gobberg, who is pursuing a master's in strategic public relations at George Washington University in the School of Political Management, is in the distance learning program (fitting for his deployment). “It’s perfect for me, since all I need is a solid Internet connection, textbooks and time,” he says. PR News recently asked Gobberg about his work in Zabul province, what it’s like to be a communicator in a war zone, how he is persuading its residents to trust the Afghan government and more. This is Part 1 of our interview with Gobberg. Part 2 will follow later this week.

PR News: I'm sure days aren't typical over there, but what is a day like for you when you're out doing your job?

Ray Gobberg:
The mentoring aspect of my duty requires me to travel outside of the Forward Operating Base on a daily basis to meet with my Afghan counterparts in their offices. A typical mission for me is a short drive to meet with several members of the government and discuss communication initiatives or outreach strategies. Since I cannot move alone, we travel in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles with a security element to the meeting location.

Preparation is the most important part of every mission. Prior to every mission off of the FOB, the members participating in the mission—whether they are drivers, gunners, the security element or meeting attendees—gather for a mission brief. The mission brief consists of an overview of the planned route, equipment check, recent intelligence, mission purpose and a review of the actions that team members must take if we take contact with the enemy or encounter another emergency situation.

PR News: In what ways do you connect the Afghan government with the people of Zabul province?

Connecting the government with the population in a legitimate, transparent way in the midst of an insurgency is challenging. As a whole, the PRT specializes in governance, medical, economic and development practices that develop Afghan government officials into effective public servants. Unlike traditional maneuver units—which are focused on seeking out the enemy or training Afghan National Security Forces—the PRT targets the development of credible, transparent governance in the province. This happens alongside partner units, which are responsible for developing competent Afghan security forces. Without security, credible governance will evaporate and ineffective governance will undermine security.

Numerous stories exist of our engineers facilitating development projects and teaching construction project management, our medical staff building the medical capacity of provincial doctors, our Department of State representatives extending competent governance outside of the provincial capital and our female engagement team achieving strides for women’s rights. However, I focus on helping the government tell the story of its successes and progress to the population, building credibility with key influencers in an effort to bolster support for local and provincial government.

PR News: How, specifically, do you build that credibility and support?

My methods, on the whole, combine elements of advertising, marketing, psychology and cultural anthropology. The cultural differences make understanding how audiences receive, process and evaluate information a difficult task, impacting how I structure the inputs (words, images) to achieve desired actions and behaviors.

These efforts are concentrated in developing and sustaining communication practices alongside existing mediums and leveraging credible, traditional methods. Since literacy in Zabul hovers around 11%, word-of-mouth communication by respected community and cultural leaders, and radio and cell phone communication are the most prevalent means of sharing information. A strategy that focuses around historically accepted lines of communication is most likely a strategy to achieve greater penetration. This assumption is driven by the operational environment and forms the basis of my tactics.

PR News: Can you share some of those tactics?

Since word-of-mouth is the most effective way to reach the people, I have worked to formally link government officials with influential Islamic scholars; religion is one of the tenets of daily Afghan life. Mullahs (Islamic scholars) are considered the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of its sciences, doctrines and laws, and the chief guarantors of continuity in the spiritual and intellectual history of the Islamic community. Whether pro-government or pro-insurgency, every Afghan visits a mullah. This constant tie to the population and regarded position in society makes the mullahs an effective line of communication.

I have helped organize shuras (meetings) between high-ranking provincial government officials and Zabul Islamic scholars. Additionally, I have arranged visits from foreign mullahs to discuss Islam and its more peaceful messages with the provincial governor and his religious advisers. I see this as an effective way for the government and scholars to work together to spread messages of peace and non-violence across Zabul.  

PR News: Can you give an example of a recent engagement that made gains?

Gobberg: My most recent endeavor has focused on leveraging the prevalence of cell phone communication in Zabul to enhance information sharing among social and professional groups. Cell communication is expanding, even in a province with a dismal literacy rate; the majority of Afghans have devices that rival the video and camera capabilities seen in many developed countries.

Through a service called Paywast, which means come together in the Pashto language, Afghans with a common interest can subscribe to a social network and share information about a specific topic. The service is funded by a grant and is completely free to the subscribers. While this might seem like an innocuous service, I have developed a plan to use this tool to share information within the agriculture, medical and employment sectors—all areas where gaps in getting useful information to a wide audience exist.

PR News: What about the trust factor with the people of Zabul province? How have you gained their trust?

Gobberg: Imagine living in a place where being a member of government, a supporter of the government or a collaborator with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) could mean the death of you or your family members. This makes things challenging, but Afghans understand that we are away from our families, in harm’s way, to try and facilitate a better future for the people of Afghanistan and generations to come.

The scars of 30 years of conflict are still fresh for Afghans, and they know that our efforts are executed with the best interests of the people in mind. Personally, I have gained the trust of my Afghan counterparts by listening. I treat myself as a guest in their country, in their village or in their office. In Afghan culture, hospitality to a guest is a cardinal virtue, and I provide the same hospitality to them. I ask about their family, their past and their hopes for the future. 

By showing genuine interest in their ideas for peace and demonstrating that I am a true partner, rather than an arrogant Westerner seeking to do things my way, I have been able to forge positive relationships, bridge the culture gap and garner trust. 

PR News: That said, how comfortable do you feel interacting with the people? Do you trust them?

Gobberg: There are Afghans that I work with on a daily basis who I trust completely. I understand that by meeting with me, they are exposing themselves and their families to harm. That takes courage. However, I am not naïve. The bottom line: If you don’t show you trust others, they will not trust you, and the relationship will be unproductive at best. I always remind myself that this is a war zone and even though our mission is positive in nature, there are people out there who will benefit from our death or injury.

As a soldier, you have to always be prepared to defend yourself and your brothers, regardless of how safe you perceive a certain situation. Never completely let your guard down. Never get complacent. Stay vigilant. I prepare myself for these realities before every mission, because if the time comes when I have to implement force to protect myself, my unit or innocent bystanders, I cannot waiver.

In Part 2 of our Q&A, Gobberg reveals his biggest challenges and successes in Afghanistan, what it’s like to work with the Afghan government and how he copes with the realities of war on a daily basis.