Amid continued communications confusion regarding the exact details of the US operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, a former White House press secretary has warned that President Obama is facing some significant global PR challenges in the days ahead.
B. Jay Cooper, who served as deputy White House press secretary under both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, told the Holmes Report that he would not give Obama top marks for his PR handling of the situation - particularly in light of the misleading details that have been released in the aftermath of the operation.
“The communications are probably a B largely because of the uncertainty of the information first given out, that later is being corrected in significant ways,” said Cooper, who is now deputy MD of APCO's Washington DC office.
“The challenge with any information coming from the White House, especially when it is coming from breaking news thousands of miles away, is making sure you’re being accurate,” added Cooper. “Unintentionally giving out facts that later need to be corrected wound your credibility. When you’re trying to communicate to significantly different markets – in this case the domestic audience and the Arab world audience – it is even more difficult.”
Several elements of the initial reports surrounding Bin Laden’s death have turned out to be misleading - including the suggestion he was armed, used his wife as a shield, and was living “high on the hog”.
Jay Carney, the president’s spokesman, later blamed the misinformation on the “fog of war”.
“The White House needs to walk that delicate balance in a climate in which you can be sure you aren’t getting, in the first hours, the most accurate reports from the field,” said Cooper.
Domestically, the President has found himself at the center of a media crossfire regarding his decision to not release photos of Bin Laden’s corpse. But overseas reaction has often centered on the celebratory scenes that accompanied news of the killing.
“The president communicated the death of Osama bin Laden well,” says Cooper. “The only criticism could be was it ‘too’ celebratory, dancing on someone’s grave?”
Cooper compares the US reaction, understandably of “let’s get this party started”, to a response in the Arab world that is “more mixed, to say the least.”
That dichotomy is likely to define the public engagement challenges that President Obama faces in the days ahead. Cooper notes that both President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev demonstrated “tremendous restraint” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “for fear of giving the wrong impression to other countries and upsetting the positive steps that were taking place.”
“Going forward, the same challenges exist both in releasing any evidence of bin Laden’s death, and in how the White House handles the ‘celebration’,” says Cooper. “That’s the fine line this White House is walking now.”