Crisis Management: A Case of Too Late: Crisis Response
The 2004 Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal almost transcended crisis management PR. The humiliating photographs created worldwide disgust and mistrust of the United States. It was a bell that could not be un-rung. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner said it was “As serious as I have ever observed” in his 60 years of military association. Presidential political advisor Karl Rove said the images may linger in Arab minds for a generation.
Nevertheless this awfulness contains damage control lessons of great import.
When Army Specialist Joseph Darby revealed the Abu Ghraib prison abuse to superiors in January, the military investigated the next day and within two months filed criminal charges against six people. This fast action appeared to meet the test “when did you learn about it and what did you do about it?” However…
While Major General Antonio Taguba drafted an unflinching, scathing investigative report, press releases about the investigation and charges did NOT reveal the explosive nature of it all. Furthermore, the pictures suggest methodical abuse which the American Red Cross reported lasted for months. Either someone was asleep on watch or, more likely, consenting. As a former military veteran it gives me no pleasure to say that I believe the Pentagon fell victim to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s comment that all lost battles (and public relations disasters) can be summed up in the words “too late!”
MacArthur’s “too late” applies most of all to the failure to recognize this ticking time bomb. The distraction of war ameliorates it some, but how could those involved not realize they held a political and cultural hand grenade with the pin pulled? Worst of all, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers told Senators that he and others knew, KNEW, back in January that reporters were aware the photographs existed and working hard to get them. Let me repeat because it is so revealing. For four months the Pentagon was aware of abuse, of photos of the abuse, of reporters on the hunt, and then claimed it was blindsided by the press disclosures. The Pentagon set itself up to be blindsided. Again, too late!
That mistake made it inevitable that the Defense Department would violate the crisis principle “keep all stakeholders in the loop.” The President and the Congress didn’t know what hit them because the Pentagon was “surprised” by an explosion whose fuse it had lit.
Other crisis management principles are to express concern or regret, perhaps apologize, and “do something,” but initially there were no authentic expressions of outrage and apology from the administration. Early reactions were tepid and parsed. President Bush and National Security Advisor Rice appeared on Arab television, but their initial messages lacked conviction and seemed studied. The President’s comments sounded restrained almost lawyered. His first apology was to the King of Jordan. The King of Jordan? The scandal fairly screamed for early bold strokes, genuine sympathy, and strong statements. Again, too late!
About five days after the revelations, the administration began to react better. The President said he was sorry six times in a print interview (while there was still no direct substantial address to the nation.) Finally, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said what had not been said before to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He apologized to the prisoners and their families and promised compensation for their suffering. He took responsibility for the catastrophe, as he described it, and said, “If there is a failure, it is me.”
A Senator asked Rumsfeld if it would have been better for him to have revealed the photographs himself. He said he wished now that he had done so. I am a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld, but sorry, sir, too late.
An ominous warning for all leaders lies in a comment by New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh who helped reveal the abuse. When asked how the scandal happened, he said the administration “did not deal with what it did not want to hear.”