Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is uncomfortable. The killing of Osama Bin Laden prompted this revelation from the man-of-the-cloth’s man-of-the-cloth. But more particularly, he was referring to certain inconsistencies in the story regarding that killing; at first the White House told the world Bin Laden was armed, then that he was unarmed.
Dr Williams’ reaction to this, as quoted by the BBC, was: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done. In those circumstances I think it’s also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.”
Getting to the heart of the matter quickly and being able to determine, often amid a great deal of confusion, the right course of action, is not easy and it’s not something everyone can do. It’s a rare chance for someone in PR to tell the top brass to sit quietly and pay attention.
I can’t be the only person who has always thought the White House and the Pentagon would be stuffed to the rafters with the keenest minds in the comms world.
It’s easy to understand the difficulties in getting reliable information out of a combat zone. Life-or-death split-second decisions don’t leave much scope for a thorough assessment of a situation before events start to take over, and in the aftermath it can take time to gather information, hear the accounts of the military personnel that were involved and so on.
Which is why the later version of the story released by the White House is the one we should, probably, put more faith in.
But it begs a question – why release the story at all before verifiable information had been received?
There was a lot said in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s demise about Twitter having broken the news. A friend of mine said something to this effect… I may have read about Bin Laden’s death first on Twitter but I went to the TV news for verification.
After all, how many fake deaths have been ‘announced’ in 140 characters or less?
The title of this piece, go ugly early, is a phrase relayed to me by someone I know who was in the US Army in Afghanistan, as part of the comms team. He was alluding to a principle that applies in crisis comms generally… get the story out first – before anyone else does – and stay in control of the message.
However unreliable the millions of sources on Twitter may be, its capacity for dissemination remains. One of the consequences is that for someone in my line of work, whether in Windsor or the White House, you have to assume that someone somewhere knows something and if you don’t go ugly early they might.