Evaluating the White House’s Crisis PR Conundrum

You can’t help but marvel at White House efforts to stop the controversy over its mistaken claim, as the President declared in his State of the Union speech, that Iraq “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As a communications official from the Clinton Administration, which was known for its share of controversy, I can’t help but chuckle a bit.

Hmmm? Looks like the buttoned-up Republican White House is no better at this than we were. The fact is, while they wield huge power, our political leaders (Democrats and Republicans alike) are no different than you and me. They’re no different than the corporate chieftains that PR agencies advise every day. Most of them react to crisis as most people would, which only makes the crisis worse.

For those of us who advise political and corporate leaders, the more we know, the better. That is, the better we can predict how they’ll react to crisis, the better we’ll be able to provide wise counsel, to guide them through the crisis, to fight their natural instincts to hide, to dissemble, or to blame others.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross tells us that as people experience loss, they pass through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Similarly, as our elected leaders experience crisis, they pass through their own predictable stages. So here, as a public service for public affairs professionals, are Haas’ five stages of political crisis (of which this White House has now experienced four):

Stage 1. We’re right. Administration officials, most notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have argued that, as the words appeared in the State of the Union, they were accurate. British intelligence did, in fact, believe the Iraqis tried to acquire uranium from Africa. Of course, “accurate” is not the same as “true,” as Sally Fields discovers as a reporter in the movie Absence of Malice. Besides, administration officials knew the claim was suspect. At CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence, they removed it from President Bush’s big speech about Iraq in Cincinnati last October. And while they inserted it in the State of the Union message, they carefully wrapped it around Tony Blair’s intelligence service, not the President’s.

Stage 2. Even if we’re wrong, it’s no big deal. As the Administration’s defenders like to say, it was “just 16 words” in the State of the Union message. That’s funny. I don’t recall a word count when President Clinton declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” – a mere nine words, for those of you keeping score at home. Likewise, surely Republicans don’t correlate word length with significance, at least not those who loved Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The problem is, errors raise questions of credibility for the Administration not just on the issue at hand, but on all issues.

Stage 3. Besides, it’s not our fault. When under siege, leaders often seek to delegate blame. When they lose elections, politicians often blame their pollsters, the media – anyone but themselves. When they confront problems in office, they often do the same thing. In this case, the President and his advisors pinned the blame squarely on Tenet, saying he and his team “cleared” the speech. Guess what, Mr. President? The CIA director works for you. Nice try, though.

Stage 4. Whatever happened, it’s over. Every leader in crisis tries to change the subject. After Clinton’s no-sex-with-that-woman assertion, he sought to end the controversy by declaring, “I need to go back to work for the American people.” Bush is no different. He and his team said that, as far as they were concerned, the matter of uranium was over. “End of story,” Rumsfeld said. The problem is, as Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush (and their respective teams) have discovered, they are in no position to declare a crisis “over,” for they are not the ones driving it in the first place. Rather, it’s the political opposition that finds the Administration’s responses inadequate, and that raises more questions each day for the White House to address. And it’s the media that delivers those opposition messages and digs more deeply on its own. Leaders actually can change the subject only when they hit the Promised Land – Stage 5.

Stage 5. Here’s what actually happened. Ah, nirvana! It’s Reagan acknowledging that he traded arms for hostages. It’s Clinton admitting an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And it’s Bush explaining how the suspect phrase made it into the State of the Union, which advisor pushed for it, and how the President plans to guard against such problems down the road. It’s the hardest stage to reach, one Bush had not approached as of this writing, but the only way to get this crisis off his desk once and for all.

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