Home > Obama’s Bin Laden coup risks becoming PR defeat

Obama’s Bin Laden coup risks becoming PR defeat

by Open-Publishing - Friday 6 May 2011

Attack-Terrorism USA

With its flip-flopping over the official narrative of Bin Laden’s killing, the White House has squandered the political capital

Last weekend, as the operation to strike Osama bin Laden’s lair was first postponed, then greenlighted and then finally carried out, President Barack Obama and his administration appeared to have ice running through their veins. Amid the behind-the-scenes risk-taking, Obama played golf and found time to roast Donald Trump expertly at the White House correspondents’ dinner. He appeared relaxed in public while in private facing unimaginable stress. Never has he more deserved his nickname "no drama Obama".

Once the daring operation was successfully carried out, he sauntered to the podium and told the American public the words it had longed to hear for almost a decade: "The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden." It was all so cool and collected.

Which makes the Obama administration’s collective response to the aftermath of the shooting of Bin Laden so baffling. Having actually caught and killed the west’s ultimate terrorist bogeyman, the White House has been busy messing up the aftermath with a display of PR ineptness that is remarkable. The White House, seemingly, can’t get its facts straight.

First, officials say Bin Laden went down in a firefight, shooting back while using a woman as a human shield. Then, it turns out he was unarmed when shot. The woman also turned out to be his wife and she was running at US troops when she was shot.

First, there was a fierce, 40-minute firefight in the Abbottabad villa. Then, it turns out only one of the people slain in the raid had a gun that he fired and he was killed in the first few minutes.

First, Bin Laden’s son Hamza was meant to have been killed. Then, it was changed to Khalid.

First, Bin Laden’s house was said to be worth a million dollars, but local real estate experts valued it at $250,000.

Officials argue they have made mistakes because they attempted to get facts quickly into the public domain from what was, no doubt, a confused "fog of war". That’s a good reason for the mess. But it is no excuse for it.

What happened to the calm and level heads of last weekend? It you don’t know the full facts, then don’t release any of them. That is basic PR stuff.

Would it have been so hard to exercise some discipline on staff and tell a breathless world: "We are building up a full picture of what happened. When we have a verified version of events in the next 48 hours, we will release it in full." And then do exactly that. Instead, Obama administration officials, who held their nerve for months while hunting Bin Laden, apparently panicked when bombarded with phone calls from a fact-starved global media.

To add to this mess has been the foolish to-and-fro over the release of death pictures of Bin Laden. First, it seemed the White House would release a photograph of Bin Laden’s corpse. Then, it backtracked a day later, saying it would not. President Obama has given an interview saying no photograph will be published, but at this rate, the White House will probably change their mind again around this time next week.

The key thing here is not actually the release (or not) of a picture. Good arguments can be made for both sides. The PR trick is to make a firm decision and stick to it. Do not tack in the prevailing media winds and conduct your debate in public, swaying to the demands of the media, pundits and Republican politicians. Again, what happened to the steely resolve shown just a few days earlier?

The end results of this are shocking and disappointing. The constantly shifting story about what actually happened feeds the conspiracy theorists. Whether it’s Islamists hoping Bin Laden is not dead or conservatives wondering if the the facts are being manipulated in the way Pentagon officials did over Private Jessica Lynch during the Iraq war, this is precisely the opposite of what the Oval Office wanted.

In finding and killing Bin Laden, the Obama White House has achieved what President George W Bush and his neocon friends desperately wanted but utterly failed to do. Yet, astonishingly, it is now in danger of losing the PR battle over it.