With the dust still settling and the death toll rising after last
week's terrorist attacks, the Bush administration's crisis response is
coming under close scrutiny, says Gidon Freeman.
As with all sectors that touch on financial services, the PR world will
have lost people in last week's tragic events in New York. Even though
most major PR agencies are based several miles north of the World Trade
Center, many will have had staff visiting the famous twin towers as the
terrorists struck, in a raid which is thought to have claimed more than
In the context of such widespread destruction, the immediate choices
made by President George Bush and his aides were crucial. In crisis
communication, the way the issue was handled by Bush and his advisers
appears to have fallen short of what was needed to inspire in people on
the ground both trust in his ability to manage the disaster and
confidence that there was a way back from this mess.
For a novice president, Bush was speedy in his response when interrupted
at a school meeting in Florida - his message was immediately and
consistently defiant. But to Americans at large he failed to project a
sense of solidarity, indeed he has been criticised for, in his early
utterances at least, simply repeating the slogans already used by
secretary of state Colin Powell: 'This was not just an act of terror, it
was an act of war'.
The sine qua non of communicating reliability in dire circumstances, say
some critics, is just to be there. It has not yet been fully established
how hard Bush tried to convince his secret service officers to return
him to Washington when the news broke last Tuesday. But it is certain
that the painfully long stop in Nebraska before returning to take
command of his capital was, in PR terms, a blunder. US newspapers, even
three days later, were asking: 'Where are you Mr President? New York has
a right to know'. It will be a creative and sustained PR campaign that
erases what some would consider to be a cowardly stain from his
It is hard to imagine Bill Clinton not insisting on being with his
people in their suffering. One senior British PRO in New York last week,
the British Library head of press and PR Greg Hayman, points out that
even the usually brusque New York mayor, Rudi Giuliani, was better at
communicating his sympathy. While Bush was in a Nebraska bunker,
Giuliani was in a hard hat among the rubble of the WTC.
Bush has therefore seen his reputation damaged, all the more because it
seems to have been picked up on by the news media covering the event
that vice-president Dick Cheney was taking charge in the White House's
situation room. Bush's first major test then - at least since the
shambolic election that saw him take the White House on a minority of
votes - had been flunked.
Government PROs, led by press secretary Ari Fleischer, may have been
forgiven for allowing their concern for lost friends and relatives to
override their usual judgement, but it is already clear that the
application of some crisis PR expertise did work. The fact some in the
news media chose to alter their transcripts of Bush's comments after
being informed of the news, will have gone some way to limiting the dent
to his public image.
Bush had said he would not rest until 'those folks who committed this
act' were tracked down. But many outlets said he would not rest until
'those who committed this act were tracked down'. The removal of the
ill-judged and jarring term 'folks' as a description of mass murderers
was surely of some help.
It may be that so many watched and heard him make the comments - and in
such an atmosphere of expectation - that the damage is done. But it will
go some way to cancelling out the negative effect of the information
drought in the days after the attack. Hayman says the existence of
24-hour TV news made people's hunger for information intense, but that
despite Giulani's noted charisma, there was no statement of reassurance,
no advice on how to cope with a battered infrastructure or lack of
transport. 'There was still no information being communicated by late on
Wednesday,' he says.
The comms breakthrough on Wednesday night - with two key press
conferences providing a sudden influx of information into the public
domain and squeezing out of the news copy some of the wilder speculation
that had filled the earlier vacuum - did not cover how New Yorkers
should be behaving. But it did regain control of the agenda for the
In Brussels, NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson told reporters of
invoking the body's Article 5, the clause that declares an attack on one
member of the alliance to be an attack on all. With this the agenda was
wrestled back under control, even though it is increasingly open to
question how far NATO members will go to fight with the US.
Meanwhile in Washington DC, a second major briefing was underway in
which the Defense Department and FBI outlined many of the details that
had come to light in the first 36 hours of investigation. Without this
frank briefing, the 20 or 30 pages of coverage in every paper the next
day would have been filled with more unconfirmed rumours than was
already the case.
A visibly upset and shaken Bush attempted to use communications to
engender a fighting spirit among his people. And yet despite successes,
some in New York say they would have found it more helpful to have been
clearly informed about crumbling services in a crisis. If a president is
judged by how he handles pressure, Bush still has to prove himself.