It's not a new word by any means, but an essential communications term – the “narrative” – has enjoyed a revival of sorts in our lexicon since the announcement and news reports about the raid in Pakistan that spelled the grisly demise of Osama bin Laden. Do a quick search for recent news articles containing this word and you'll see what I mean.
The exuberance being reported on in the first news cycle immediately following the raid was palpable and heartfelt. Initial news reports dealt with the details of the mission itself, the impressive execution by the Navy SEAL team on the ground, and the Obama administration's deft oversight of the operation.
Then, just as quickly as those original news flashes spread, the reporting started to morph as the White House made “refinements” to the details in earlier official accounts of what actually went down in Abbottabad. White House spokesman Jay Carney had this to say:
“Well, what is true is that we provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you and, through you, the American public about the operation and how it transpired…and obviously some of the information was – came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on. So what I can tell you, I have a narrative that I can provide to you on the raid itself, on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan.”
This first “rough draft of history,” you might say, was a little too rough.
The administration, by having released inaccurate or incomplete information, forced them to have to back-pedal a bit to correct the record, and that spawned quite a number of unwanted side-stories. This demonstrates the volatility of the news cycle in a rapidly evolving situation and how the administration lost control over the bin Laden narrative, at least for a while, during a critical period.
The initial stories were replaced by ones dealing with the legality of the mission, whether to release photos of bin Laden in the aftermath of the raid, whether or not Pakistan was complicit in providing the al-Qaeda leader safe haven, as well as a fierce debate about whether harsh interrogation techniques on al-Qaeda operatives during the previous administration were ultimately effective in securing information about bin Laden's whereabouts. These sideshows became diversions from the essential narrative.
The narrative is the plot line that animates the work we do as communicators. It involves articulating themes and telling a story, firmly rooted in truth, that is compelling enough to warrant the attention of the news media and their audiences. Communicators have to be vigilant in staying on-message, making sure the facts are straight at the outset, and being agile enough to think quickly and get the narrative back on track when events threaten to derail it.
By all accounts, the operation last Sunday was a success, and a sharp blow against al-Qaeda and terrorism. It also provided some closure to those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001 and to a nation that grieved along with them.
As for bin Laden, the ability to shape the final chapter in his narrative was, thankfully, out of his control.
Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.