The tracking down and death of Osama Bin Laden could have led to President Obama to scale back the billion dollar advertising war chest he allegedly seeks. Riding comfortably in the wake of an astonishing example of superpower reach, he could have been a shoe-in for a second term in 2012. He may still be, but that will be no thanks to a chaotic presentation of the attack in Abbottobad.
We are seeing a government PR debacle. This is quite remarkable from a country as media saturated as the USA and from politicians supposedly as media savvy as any in the world.
It is true, of course, that in 24/7 media coverage times there is a premium in getting the news out quickly and putting your stamp on it. No doubt this was spurred on after the briefing given to former President Bush was revealed to the world in a Twitter message.
Clearly much thought had been given to the aftermath of a successful operation. The disposal of Bin Laden’s remains is one example. The immediate closing of the US embassy and other diplomatic missions in sensitive areas is another.
The message, however, seems to have been an afterthought and has spun out of control. The now famous pictures of the situation room show no presence from the White House communications team. After the Presidential address, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan gave a briefing to the press corps and a round of interviews.
The next stage is for White House press spokesman Jay Carney to read from a written text to correct numerous erroneous remarks from Brennan about how Bin Laden died. Add to this rich mixture of confusion an Interview from CIA Director Leon Panetta saying that a picture of Bin Laden’s corpse would definitely be released, only to be slapped down by the President saying it would not.
If conspiracy theorists wanted fuel for their fire it must seem like Christmas came early in 2011.
The results are that Brennan’s credibility is trashed and Leon Panetta, soon to become Defence Secretary, looks damaged, and the White House appears inept in handling one of the two the biggest stories of the year.
Here at Haslamedia there is a fair amount of experience of government disasters and their handling. We are humble enough to say that we didn’t always get them right but we would have been embarrassed to be involved with this outcome.
What to do?
The primary lessons for the White House are that the story was big enough to simmer for a while to let the fog of war clear and the facts to be settled before giving in-depth to the media only to recant in discomfort. The message needs to be controlled by having a single, knowledgeable, briefer, at least until a common narrative has been agreed by all key players. Speculation is disaster. If you don’t know what the President is going to decide on photos just say it isn’t decided.
This mess isn’t going to diminish the achievement or its long-term implications – for good or ill. But it is a failure in communications terms that should not have been allowed to happen. It is after the event but the White House needs to close as much down as possible and handle it centrally.
More than anything else it emphasizes that you need your communicators in the situation room just as much as the other advisers. If communications is not built in from the start, the risk of this sort of mess goes up to the levels that the US Navy Seals were facing. That’s not sensible or fair. After all the communications teams in most Western government offices are generally not armed.