Thursday, August 12, 2004

Damage control in progress

What would you do if you had a trio of reporters hot on your heels? Suppose the reporters thought they had the sort of story that can make a career. Such a case is unfolding before our very eyes. Let’s pretend you were the PR flack concerned and examine some of the steps you could take.

Part of the rationale for the Iraq war was the allegation that Iraq had acquired “yellow cake” uranium from Niger. We now know that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and that the documents that were the basis of the “yellow cake” uranium story were forgeries. For the reporters, the question is who forged the documents and why?

Now everything that has ever been written about crisis communications advocates candor. Alas, this idea is more honored in the breach than observance. Let’s pretend you are the sort of flack who believes it is possible to create confusion until the whole ugly mess blows over, or another news event comes along to distract public attention.

You could always put out a decoy story, like a fox laying back tracks in an effort to throw the hounds off scent. You could plant a story that the forged documents were not the only evidence indicating that Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium. You could suggest that the forgeries were made by an independent operator, not connected to the government in any way. You would want to be sure to plant these stories in a newspaper which had not been a big cheerleader for the war, such as the Financial Times.

But false trails rarely serve. News hounds usually catch on to the newsmaker fox’s tactics. The next step is the strategic disclosure. You leak just enough information to scoop the unfriendly reporter and steal their thunder.

You can muddy the water with competing stories. Once those stories are printed, the news organizations in question will be intellectually vested in perpetuating their version of events. In the ensuing confusion over competing versions, voters may well give the government the benefit of the doubt.

The other trick for the is to define the issue as narrowly as possible, were we technically lying? If not, it follows we were telling the truth.

Obviously, the blend of intelligence operations, press leaks, and official announcements described here are way beyond the scale of most PR work. But watch how this plays out, for there will be many lessons. Notice the evil influence of anonymous sources.

Technoflak’s view is that governments should wage peace, and avoid war. War is sometimes necessary, but its terrible cost must never be underestimated.

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