OPINION: NEWS ANALYSIS - NY terror attacks lead to massive comms crisis

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

5,000 lives.



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

reputation.



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

White House.



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.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.