The White House: The tactics, and politics, of deflecting media attention

The Karl Rove controversy has the Bush administration in full crisis communications mode, and offers an intriguing study of PR inside the Beltway.

The Karl Rove controversy has the Bush administration in full crisis communications mode, and offers an intriguing study of PR inside the Beltway.

The controversy surrounding whether White House officials participated in the outing of an undercover CIA operative has spawned a wide array of face-saving PR moves by the various actors in the drama. The strategies all have one thing in common - they hinge on the credibility of the Bush administration and its Democratic rivals.

The actors include White House officials, congressional Democrats, and the press, particularly one member who has been sent to a Virginia jail for refusing to reveal her sources to a special prosecutor.

The intensity of the PR tactics varies from day to day, depending on how closely the press is following the story. Two weeks ago, Bush officials and Republican operatives in Washington were in full crisis communications mode when White House press secretary Scott McLellan was practically harassed by the press corps over his 2003 statements denying any involvement on the part of Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, in the leak of information pertaining to Valerie Plame's association with the CIA. It has since been learned that Rove did in fact speak with at least one reporter, Time's Matthew Cooper, about her.

McLellan under fire

One of the first rules of crisis communications is to keep your PR people informed, so it remains to be seen whether McLellan was left in the dark about Rove's contact with reporters, or whether he was involved in a strategy to mislead reporters in 2003 under the assumption that the controversy would have a short shelf life.

Today, the administration refuses to comment on the issue, citing special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's ongoing investigation into the leak. GOP operatives outside the White House have been tasked with defending Rove and framing the controversy as a media-created story.

The matter centers on whether someone in the Bush administration outed Plame, wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, as payback for Wilson suggesting that the White House used cooked intelligence reports to justify the Iraq invasion.

Bush himself has been criticized for flip-flopping on the matter. In June 2004, the President said he would fire anyone in his administration shown to have leaked the information. Two weeks ago, he added the qualifier that it would have to be shown that a crime was committed for someone to be kicked out.

Mark Corallo, public affairs director for the US Justice Department from 2002 to 2005 and founder of Corallo Media Strategies, predicts that unless Fitzgerald "has indictments up his sleeve, the story is over." The controversy will be drowned out by the Supreme Court nomination and events such as the bombings in London and Egypt.

"Having been somewhat involved in the case while I was at Justice and still getting calls on it today, you certainly have a situation in which the journalists are keeping something alive that the rest of the public isn't even paying attention to," he argues. "It has no legs outside the Beltway."

The appointment of a special prosecutor in the fall of 2003 can be traced to the Democrats on Capitol Hill, who "had a PR strategy out of the box," Corallo says. The Democrats argued that then-attorney general John Ashcroft was incapable of overseeing an investigation into the leak because he had potential conflicts of interest with Rove, who handled some direct mailing efforts for Ashcroft during his political career in Missouri. Ashcroft opted to recuse himself from the investigation.

Now some say the President is taking advantage of his unique position to change the topic. According to Leonard Steinhorn, a professor for the School of Communication at American University in Washington, the Bush administration needed to shift the focus in Washington away from the Rove controversy.

"The word is that they accelerated their decision [on John Roberts] to move the focus of the news," Steinhorn explains. "This is a way to keep the heat off and the public trust from eroding."

"I think the President has an absolute built-in way to spotlight things from a PR standpoint," explains Al Lautenslager, PR consultant and author of Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days. The timing of Bush's nomination of Roberts to the Supreme Court was "purposefully controlled here to overshadow the Karl Rove situation," he argues. "I just think that things were getting heated up and he said, 'Let's move up the timetable.'"

The White House did not return a call seeking comment.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that half of Americans are paying attention to news reports that Rove may have leaked classified information. And 58% of those following the reports closely say Rove should resign.

"They've been effective in getting their message out, though it's started to blow back on them a bit," says former CIA analyst Larry Johnson. "You can't keep saying that black is white and nothing is there. After a while, folks out in the hinterlands start to figure it out."

On July 22, Johnson, a registered Republican and counter-terrorism expert, argued before a Democratic congressional panel that the failure of the President to fire Rove and anyone else supposedly involved in the leak had severely damaged national security. The Democrats also invited Johnson to give the Democratic Party's weekly radio address on July 23, during which he talked about the outing of Plame.

Johnson says he was surprised that Republicans did not attack him for his testimony on Capitol Hill and his radio address. "Normally, they hit back hard," he says. "When you're confronted with actual hard facts as opposed to spin, there's not a lot you can do to defeat that."

The power of the press

Although the Plame matter simmered in the background for almost two years, the press is likely to keep a closer eye on the story because one of their own - New York Times reporter Judith Miller - sits in jail for refusing to reveal her sources.

Miller, who never penned a story on the Plame affair, wrote extensively during the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq about Saddam Hussein allegedly having the capability for weapons of mass destruction. Corallo contends Miller was on the hot seat at the Times over her reporting on Iraq and that her battle with Fitzgerald was a perfect mechanism to restore her reputation.

"The dirty little secret in [DC] was she was about to be fired," Corallo says. "She should be sending Pat Fitzgerald a dozen roses and a thank-you note right now because he just made her untouchable. She's unfirable. He basically just saved her career."

But the Times described as "patently untrue" Corallo's comments about Miller, who has been with the paper since 1977.

"Judy is an intrepid, principled, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has provided our readers with thorough and comprehensive reporting throughout her career," said Catherine Mathis, VP of corporate communications for the newspaper.

As for the media fascination with Rove, he believes most journalists covering the controversy believe the Bush adviser did not break any laws.

"People soon will realize Karl Rove isn't going anywhere, he hasn't broken any laws, and he probably didn't do anything that even borders on inappropriate," Corallo maintains. "I don't even know if a CIA agent was outed here. Under those circumstances, the story goes away."

Johnson disagrees, arguing that there are many former intelligence officers in DC angry with how the White House has responded to the outing of Plame.

"Republicans are getting this image of being this corrupt party," he says. "If you combine corruption with not caring about the security of the country and security of intelligence officers, from a PR standpoint, those are terrific messages Democrats could run on in 2006. Whether they're smart enough to figure that out, that's a whole different story."

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