Truth Will Out

Last month, it was President Obama’s birth certificate. Now it’s proof of Osama bin Laden’s death.

When will this administration learn? In an online, always-plugged-in world – in which citizens are armed with camera phones, text is a verb, and scoops can be published in a nanosecond – news cannot be withheld.

A photograph of bin Laden’s body should have been released immediately. Now there are millions of fakes floating around the Internet, and no one knows what’s real and what’s Memorex.

Team Obama, which embraced the Internet during the 2008 campaign, has to adjust to the ever-increasing speed of the Web by 2012. From a PR perspective, social media have made it even more difficult to control and shape the news to one’s liking. Once news is out – and it will get out – it can’t be submerged; it rises to the surface faster than a BP tar ball.

But what an administration, corporation, or other organization can do is stay in front of a news story. The Obama administration has been far too slow to respond to a series of them – from world-shaking events like the Iranian uprising and crackdown to the ridiculous kerfuffle that allowed Donald Trump to force the president of the United States into releasing his long-form birth certificate.

The administration has been reactive instead of active in its communications. As a result, the media spread suspicion, public skepticism builds, and the president’s approval rating drops, eventually forcing him to bow to the pressure.

According to his 1999 book Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself, former presidential adviser Lanny Davis gave Bill Clinton this advice about the Monica Lewinsky affair: “Take your case to the American people, tell them everything, everything there is to tell.” Davis continues, “Withholding information is like a pressure cooker. If the heat gets too high, the story is going to blow.” And this was before Facebook and Twitter.

Modern media have turned the presidency into an office of crisis communications, and the current administration has failed to grasp that. Its mishandling of information reflects poorly on the country and does severe damage to our national “brand.”

The White House needs not just a press secretary who reacts to news, but a high-level official charged with effectively communicating the president’s position to the world. That person’s job would include dealing quickly with crises that could require the prolonged attention of the White House and the president – including those that haven’t yet happened.

The president’s advisers should be asking themselves what could go seriously wrong in every country around the world – Japan, Libya, Syria. They should imagine every plausible scenario and have a plan to address it.

Like businesses and high-profile individuals, governments need to recognize that crisis communications is like a fire drill. When the alarm goes off, the people in the organization need to know what to do and where to go; it’s not the time to wonder, “What do we do now?”

The speed with which information travels today necessitates an anticipatory approach to crises, so that minor jams don’t grow into major predicaments, hampering progress on the business that should be a priority. The answer is to be active, transparent, open, and honest. That’s the best way for the president to stay above the fray.

0 Comment   |   Posted in News May 10, 2011

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