Crisis Management: Iraq War Communications – A Report Card: Crisis Communications
(I wrote this originally in the weeks after the second Gulf War was well underway and although many references are now dated, the issues are not.)
War is the ultimate crisis. As a crisis consultant, permit me to offer something of a report card on communications involving the initial attack on Iraq and NOT on the insurgency battle that followed.
Embedded reporters. A+. Then Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke should have won multiple awards for promoting embedding reporters with the troops. Journalists delivered unprecedented war nuggets while giving deserved attention to the frontline grunts. These battle slices worked well notwithstanding Geraldo’s disclosure of 101st Airborne operations. Interestingly, in spite of the anxiety, military families say that seeing their soldiers alive is reassuring.
War correspondents. A. They risked all to tell us the story. Some died. NBC’s David Bloom sacrificed his life to a blood clot by remaining cramped in vehicles 24/7. Too bad Peter Arnett robbed us of his critical eye by attacking U-S war strategy on state-controlled Iraq television.
Battle reports. A/D. The firefights were chilling; mesmerizing. But where was Death? News executives chose not to show corpses, and polls said U-S viewers didn’t want to see them. I believe that’s an error of omission. Should a nation that embraces violence in its entertainment turn away from bloodshed in war?
Military spokespeople: week one. D. Reporters asked about tough fighting, lack of Iraqi civilian support, terrorist tactics, strained supply lines, insufficient troops, and what did top officials say? “We are following the plan, it’s a good plan, we are on the plan, we are on schedule, and we expected this.” “Trust us,” seemed the only reassurance offered an apprehensive public.
Military spokespeople: week two and beyond. B. The information doors swung open Sunday, March 30, 2003. Then General Tommy Franks reeled off achievements – no missile attacks on Israel, no vast oil fires, no humanitarian disaster, etc. – then answered tough questions without generalities. He explained the initially-criticized plan, and began a more forthcoming communications style that lasted. Personally, while CentCom General Vincent Brooks, at the time, was one of the Army’s best, as spokesperson I prefered a touch more warmth and a bit less message. The day friendly fire killed three journalists his basic response was, “We warned you it was dangerous.”
The Administration: Persuading the world to join us. D. President Bush has chutzpah and determination, but his “our way or the highway” talk was often more standoffish than persuasive to me. Prime Minister Tony Blair was much more inclusive.
The Administration: Managing Expectations. A? Intense fighting, friendly fire, “fragging,” and even sandstorms suggested we were misled, but in time most predictions proved prescient. “Shock and awe” shrewdly made Saddam and us look for a spectacular Baghdad air attack while Special Forces slipped in the back door, saved oil wells, neutralized missiles, and attacked by ground. Clever.
Cable TV News. A/D. MSNBC rode David Bloom and other top NBC talent into action, Fox News kicked butt on the potential bombing death of Saddam April 7 (later found to be untrue, of course), and CNN broke the POW release.
However, occasional jingoism by Fox News was a turn-off. MSNBC had a bit of it. CNN played it straight.
Print reporters and photographers. A. Still photographers froze fast moving events into heart-rending tableaus while print journalists enriched details. Did you notice how often TV anchors interviewed their ink-stained brethren?
Pundits. D. Often wrong, they gave new meaning to an old saying about persisting in the face of criticism. “The dogs will bark, but the parade marches on.”
The troops. A+. Their professionalism spoke volumes. Even a marine’s placing of an American flag over the Saddam statue in Baghdad – an act some criticized – was not bravado, but a brief display of a flag from the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11.