Obama's comms team faced enormous challenges

By any stretch of the imagination the last week has been an extraordinary one - and one that highlighted in no uncertain terms the definition of what constitutes a modern global media event.

By any stretch of the imagination the last week has been an extraordinary one – and one that highlighted in no uncertain terms the definition of what constitutes a modern global media event.

It started last Friday with a British Royal Wedding that transfixed the country in which it took place, but also engaged the attention of significant parts of the rest of the world, with a global TV audience estimated at 2 billion.

But the media agenda moves fast and within two days something much more significant was dominating the airwaves, as news emerged that the US had finally tracked down and killed terrorist overlord Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan.

This operation required meticulous planning from so many angles, not least the various strands of communication that needed to be thought about and prepared beforehand, as excellently analyzed elsewhere on the PRWeek website.

Obama clearly made a commitment last August to ramp up efforts to locate bin Laden that stalled in the latter days of the Bush Administration. It was more than ironic that he was at the Washington press correspondents' black tie dinner on Saturday evening listening to comedian Seth Myers' calling for the “Barack Obama of 2008” to return. Little did Myers know the “2008 Obama” would reappear so soon.

It was also an ironic “coincidence” that the show interrupted on Sunday to broadcast Obama's statement announcing the death of bin Laden was NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice, featuring Donald Trump – 56 million people watched his speech. Obama had spent much of the previous week having to prove his birthright at the behest of Trump, an episode that didn't cast the controversial property magnate in a positive light. One can only assume Trump's presidential bid, however unlikely it may have been, is now blown out of the water before it started.

But the bin Laden mission was risky, and could have turned out very differently, as demonstrated by the tense expressions on the faces of Obama and Hillary Clinton in the already-iconic photograph of them watching the operation unfold live.

The Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993 showed what can happen when such operations go wrong and was a PR disaster for incumbent president Bill Clinton. And the capture and hanging of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein in 2006, a video of which ended up on YouTube, showed what can happen when control of events is ceded to third parties.

Obama and his team did their best to plan every detail beforehand, abiding by Muslim customs for bin Laden's funeral, and releasing descriptions of events promptly, even if those “facts” changed markedly throughout the week.

Mistakes were undoubtedly made, but the communications challenges of this global media event and future implications in terms of a terrorist backlash would have taxed any PR professional.

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.