General David Petraeus put his superstar, celebrity-like reputation on the line when he made the media rounds last week touting the message that the US is making significant progress in Afghanistan.
The communications challenges of selling what has become a drawn-out and increasingly unpopular war are formidable. American troop casualties reached a record high in July, pushing the total number of deaths well beyond the 1,000 mark. The House recently approved $37 billion in new spending for the campaign in Afghanistan, but it was a reflection of waning public support that the vote was divided and showed dissent within the Democratic Party.
“Everyone is wondering what return on investment we're making when you get nothing but a steady diet of bad news about how things are going in Afghanistan,” says Tom Davis, VP of Susan Davis International, who has worked for a number of government agencies including the Department of Defense. “People are really losing patience with the effort. We've become a war-weary nation.”
But if anyone can restore credibility to the Afghan campaign, it is Petraeus. He is widely credited with turning around the war in Iraq. He is also considered to be one of the smartest communicators to come out of the military in the modern era, say those interviewed for this article, including a top PR player in Washington who has worked closely with the man who commands American and NATO forces.
Terry Hemeyer, who teaches PR at the University of Texas and crisis management at Rice University, says most politicians “are running for cover” on this issue. “President Obama knows he needs someone with experience and credibility to tell the story as to why we're there, why we're spending the money and why those kids are dying,” says Hemeyer, who spent 20 years with the US Air Force. “We've certainly heard the other side.”
Hemeyer believes Petraeus has shown himself to be confident and competent—without the ego of his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal. A month ago, Petraeus replaced McChrystal, who was fired after Rolling Stone published disparaging remarks he made about top US officials.
“He absolutely needed to project confidence,” Davis tells PRWeek. “When he speaks here he is not just addressing the public and Washington, but also, indirectly, the folks who are deployed. Everything he says is reaching more than one audience—and he is fully aware of that.”
While Petraeus and Obama seemed to be on the same page in terms of messaging, they differed on one key point—beginning withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Petraeus told various media outlets he'd be prepared to recommend that a drawdown be delayed.
By setting a date for the withdrawal of troops, Obama helped appease critics of the war, including those within his own constituency. But PR pros say it is likely he is prepared to extend that deadline if Petraeus can demonstrate the kind of success he had in Iraq, thereby helping win back public support.