Crisis communication rule #1: First Reports Are Always Wrong.
Rule #2: So Are Most Second Reports
One of our loyal readers asked for the 15-Seconds take on controversy about the Obama administration’s media response to the situation in Benghazi, Libya where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
Here at 15-Seconds Blog — we don’t do politics. We have views — but readers don’t come to this site for our political take. There are, however, some important lessons from the Benghazi situation for those who deal with the media in times of crisis.
To briefly recap the controversy — in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate on September 11th, the administration said it was caused by spontaneous riots sparked by a movie trailer offensive to Muslims. Five days after the attack, U.S. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday shows saying the attack was “initially a spontaneous reaction” to a demonstration in Cairo.
That answer didn’t hold up and word started leaking out that there was information early on suggesting that the attack was a planned terrorist action.
Critics were quick to suggest that the Administration was intentionally misleading the public for political reasons.
Before long, the office of the Director of National Intelligence provided some cover with their spokesman issuing a statement seemingly taking some blame for an evolving intelligence assessment.
That was followed by more leaks suggesting that there was intelligence long before Rice’s statement pointing toward planned terrorist attacks. Even The Daily Show, normally supportive of the Obama administration, found the handling of the matter inexplicable.
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|American Terror Story|
We don’t know for sure — but we suspect the administration fell victim to a common problem we see in crisis communications situations. They gave the answer they HOPED would be true. In a crisis situation there is always a ton of information — much of it conflicting — from which officials must draw their talking points. It is always a mistake to let your heart steer you toward an answer which most closely supports your previously conceived notions. In this case — the administration was invested in the talking point that Al Qaeda was close to defeat. If the Benghazi attack was planned by Al Qaeda or their supporters it would undercut a political theme. For that reason — faced with the usual pile of conflicting information – it was easy to find the “spontaneous reaction” argument compelling.
Can you find early intelligence which says the attack was the work of terrorists. No doubt. Can you find other authoritative documents which point in the other direction. We bet you can.
Rice rolled the dice — and lost. It would have been much better to have withheld judgment and declined to offer any conclusions until the smoke had cleared. Had they done so — they would not now be facing the allegation of having lied.