Photos frame PR picture over US handling of Cuban boy's plight

WASHINGTON, DC: Regardless of the spin that Attorney General Janet Reno and the Clinton administration attempt to put on the Elian Gonzalez situation, public debate has likely been cemented by the two pictures snapped during the early-hour April 22 raid on the boy's temporary residence, several pros said last week.

WASHINGTON, DC: Regardless of the spin that Attorney General Janet Reno and the Clinton administration attempt to put on the Elian Gonzalez situation, public debate has likely been cemented by the two pictures snapped during the early-hour April 22 raid on the boy's temporary residence, several pros said last week.

'Public opinion will fall along the lines of these two photographs,' said Charles McLean, a senior managing director in Hill & Knowlton's DC media practice. One of the pictures shows a federal marshal holding a rifle as a clearly upset Elian cowers in the background, while the other depicts a smiling reunion between Elian and his father.

CNN/Gallup polling revealed that even though most Americans believe the boy should be permanently reunited with his father, they are deeply concerned about the commando-like tactics used to extricate Elian from his Miami relatives.

'People woke up (that Saturday) to some extremely powerful images,' said one media-relations specialist. 'Even if the seizure had otherwise been completely peaceable - which it wasn't - Reno and Clinton aren't going to be able to erase those images.'

PR pros had few kind words to say about Reno's wavering approach to the highly politicized situation. 'She showed a total misunderstanding of PR,' said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. 'The way she looks and sounds comes off cold, distant, unfeeling. She says she cares, but that does not come across.'

Pollster Chris Wilson, who has Republican ties, added that Reno should have turned over media relations to a more practiced Justice Department spokesperson (the Secretary of Defense usually leaves briefs about military operations to a Pentagon spokesperson).

'The photo is one of the great image-damaging shots of the century,' said Wes Pedersen, director of communications and PR at the Public Affairs Council. 'The question is, will Bush have the sense to let the photo do damage on its own.'

As for the GOP reaction to the Elian uproar, Wilson said the party should downplay the issue, as congressional leaders wanting to investigate Reno's tactics are likely to come across as being overly partisan.

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