Benghazi: Lessons in Crisis Communications
Each day brings new revelations about the tragedy in Benghazi in which our ambassador and three others were killed on September 11th. The latest are contained in government emails which indicate that an Islamist group had claimed credit for the attack two hours after it occurred and that the White House, the State Department and the FBI were told about it. Apparently, the group – Ansar al-Sharia – used Facebook and Twitter to claim responsibility for the attack…
As we know, US ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows on September 16th, claiming that the attack came at the hands of a spontaneous mob that was angered by an anti-Islamic video. In various reports, she indicated that she was relying on talking points provided by the CIA.
The day after the attack, President Obama labeled it an “act of terror.” However, in the ensuing days, White House spokesman Jay Carney claimed that there was no evidence suggesting that the attack was “planned or imminent.” In addition to Ms. Rice, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland cited the video as sparking the event.
The tragedy offers many lessons in crisis communications:
Get on the same page. In the earliest stages of a crisis, it is critical to get the facts (as many as possible) and formulate a singular response. There is nothing wrong with saying at the onset of a crisis that “we are conducting a thorough investigation as to the causes of this tragedy and we will provide details as we obtain them. It would not be prudent to speculate at this point.” This should have been done immediately via scheduling a press conference the following day.
Limit the number of messengers. Once the message is formulated, limit the number of messengers and make sure that they are fully briefed on the matter. Limiting the number of messengers reduces the opportunity for the dissemination of misinformation. Deploy them strategically and make them readily available.
Exhibit leadership. During times of crisis – be they corporate or national in nature – it is critical that constituents get a sense that there is someone in control and making decisions. In the aftermath of the Benghazi tragedy, the President flew out to attend a fundraising event in Las Vegas. While I don’t believe that it would have made much of a difference, the optics sent the wrong message.
Starve a story… feed speculation. In the weeks following the attack, the Administration went on the defensive – circled the wagons and clamped down on commenting on the matter in the hopes that media interest would die down, pending the results of an ongoing investigation. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum and attempts to fill it. Of course, there was no shortage of speculation given the magnitude of the story and media coverage expanded dramatically.
Be transparent. The American public is demanding answers to a whole host of questions, which I won’t delineate here. Early on in the crisis, it might have been a good strategy to have all the key players from the administration gathered for a major press event to answer some of those questions. While I recognize the inherent problems in such an undertaking, it would portray the administration as transparent and concerned about the issues Americans care about.
Of course, we are in a political season and I believe that the actions of both parties are colored by that fact; however, the loss of human life transcends politics.