On Monday, the White House was riding high.
The announcement on Sunday night that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden is among the most significant events with which the Obama White House has dealt. It created a media stir and an immediate boost in the president’s poll numbers
However, the focus has now turned to the White House’s communication efforts in the days following the announcement.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has been in the position only since February, and he’s taken plenty of heat, evidenced by Washington insiders telling The Telegraph
that he’s “floundering.”
Richard A. Grenell
was appointed by former President Bush in 2001 to serve as director of communications and public diplomacy for the U.S. representative to the United Nations and advised four U.S. ambassadors. In an email to PR Daily
, Grenell, who now serves as a partner in the Los Angeles-based Capitol Media Partners
, said it’s obvious Carney is nervous about what he says on the record.
“[His statements] come off as stale, canned and someone else’s word,” Grenell said. “It’s crucial for [a] political spokesman to be in the room when politicians make important decisions—it’s even better when the spokesman participates in those decisions. Carney looks as if he is reading a statement prepared by someone else.”
Grenell acknowledged that the Obama administration has taken bin Laden’s death seriously and has shown that it is concerned about Arab reaction and the families of 9/11 victims.
However, he criticized the apparent wavering by the White House on whether it would release photos of bin Laden’s corpse. The administration ultimately decided that it wouldn’t after conflicting reports in the media.
“Heightening the emotions surrounding the photo’s release created unneeded drama,” Grenell said. “It emphasized that President Obama was indecisive and nervous as to what to do. It also played into the narrative that Obama is unable to make tough military decisions as evident by the Libya/NATO dithering and the Afghanistan troop increase decision.”
, founder and president of Praecere Public Relations
, acknowledges some of the administration’s PR gaffes, but he doesn’t think they will detract from the mission’s overall success.
Zafarina, who previously served as a communications specialist for members of Congress and was the director of Burson-Marsteller’s crisis group, said:
“In any other situation these things would take away from the moment, but the enormity of this event—the fact that an entire nation, if not most of the world has awaited closure for 10 years—quickly outweighs any missteps that arise in the fog of war.”
The ultimate verdict on how the Obama administration has handled its communications is weeks or months away, Zafarnia said. It’ll be especially problematic if the reality of what happened on Sunday turns out to be different than the White House narrative.
“The public and Congress will tolerate some deviations and minor discrepancies from the details as presented,” he said, “but if there's something beyond that—say like the controversies like what happened with Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, not finding WMDs—then the fallout can be substantial.”
Evan Peterson, a former media relations specialist at the Justice Department, echoed Zafarnia’s point, while praising the White House’s transparency thus far.
“The only thing better than transparency is speedy transparency, and that's what the White House has issued this week,” he said. “When details were available, officials gave them. When they learned that maybe some of those details were unclear or false, administration officials—not the White House press pool—corrected them.”
Peterson continued: “Up to this point, it appears the White House has done an excellent job of walking right up to the line that separates public interest from national security without stepping over it.”