President Obama is in hot water for his prisoner swap to secure the freedom of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban.
But what Obama did -- working to free an imprisoned American solider -- was the right thing. What was wrong was the PR surrounding Bergdahl's release.
In fact, what has been wrong with the Obama administration almost from the moment the silver-tongued candidate entered the White House is its amateurish, ham-handed, tone-deaf PR. Indeed, lousy PR may prove to be as significant an Achilles' Heel as any in ensuring the legacy of a mediocre presidency.
Time and again -- from healthcare to IRS, from Benghazi to VA scandal -- the Obama team has failed to assess accurately the fallout resulting from inferior PR. The Bergdahl case is the latest stunning example.
In the first place, as the New York Times' often-head scratching columnist David Brooks correctly concluded, "President Obama did the right thing." Bergdahl, whatever his motives, was an American soldier and somebody’s son. In respect of his service and sacrifice, Bergdahl's country -- and its citizens -- owed him and his parents their best efforts to free him from captivity. Period.
That Obama, in the face of obvious, imminent criticism -- in light of both Bergdahl's checkered service experience and the five terrorists for whom he was traded -- still had the courage to make the deal is a credit to him and to the ideals for which the Presidency should stand.
So despite the self-righteous sniping of the John McCain-inspired Monday Morning Quarterbacks, the President did the right thing in ensuring the soldier’s freedom.
What he didn’t get right was the announcement of Bergdahl’s release. The PR handling of the Bergdahl announcement was but the latest indication of the Obama team’s naiveté at best, stupidity at worst, in terms of basic PR. Here were their most egregious screw-ups in the Bergdahl release.
· Poor planning.
We still don’t know if Bergdahl was a deserter, an anti-American or a jihadist. But the Obama team certainly did know that Bergdahl was a kook, with a free-spirit background and a questionable history as a soldier. They knew about the instances of his going AWOL, including his disappearance in Afghanistan. (Why he was automatically promoted – twice! – in captivity, despite his military record, is another good question.)
The point is the Obama Administration knew, in advance, that Bergdahl was a controversial character, who would clearly attract detractors when his record became public knowledge. In addition, of course, there were the five real nasty jihadists being released in exchange for him. Certainly, their release would also provoke instant outrage.
PR 101, therefore, called for reviewing the “worst case scenario” and realizing that what was called for, in light of all these potential land mines, was a low-key announcement, preferably via written statement from the White House; to be backstopped by a ready standby plan to defend the decision.
Instead, the Obama PR “brain” trust organized a high profile, unprecedented, Saturday morning Rose Garden media extravaganza, with the President in the spotlight to bask in the glow of his bold and courageous action.
It was a PR recipe for imminent disaster, especially in light of the….
· Disastrous photo op.
Our 21st century, dumbed-down society is dominated by pictures. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. When we see the disheveled mug shot or the scowling face, we draw hard and lasting conclusions. A picture is worth a thousand tweets.
And so when Bergdahl’s father, Bob, showed up at the White House, looking like the bass player in ZZ Top, it didn’t take an Edward Bernays to realize that daddy’s long beard would dominate the coverage. The always subtle Bill O’Reilly thundered that he “looked like a Muslim.”
Predictably, what followed for the Sawtooth, Idaho mountain man /UPS driver was a rigorous scrutiny of his own history, past actions and statements. Equally predictably, what the truth-seekers found was that since his son’s capture, the senior Bergdahl had immersed himself in Islam, had made a three-minute video for the Pakistani government, and had thanked the Taliban for taking care of his son.
What was most predictable from this flood of incriminating information about the elder Bergdahl was that it would immediately launch a national backlash against the release of his son. And the elements that stimulated it all were not only the Duck Dynasty beard sported by Bergdahl at the White House photo op but also the ...
· Inappropriate rhetoric.
As any first-year PR student knows, everything at a press conference needs to be scripted – the speeches, the staging, the answers to questions; everything must be rehearsed. That way, you can keep the surprises to a minimum. And if there’s anything a PR professional finds abhorrent, it’s “surprises.”
Nonetheless, the Obama team presumably had no time for rehearsals. The Bergdahls, in D.C. to attend rallies for their son, were notified late and whisked to the White House to share spontaneously in the good news. And so at the Rose Garden soiree, when the hirsute Bergdahl approached the podium, he chose the phrase, “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” to welcome back his son. Nothing surprising about that.
But what was surprising is that he chose to say it in Pashtu, also known as Afghani, because he felt his son might have difficulty after five years in captivity of understanding English. Accordingly, Bergdahl looked straight into the world’s cameras and intoned the phrase, “bismillah al-Rahman al Rahim,” which turns out to be a major pillar of Islam, featured prominently in the Koran.
To quote another decidedly un-Afghani phrase, “Oy gevalt!” Cue Bill O’Reilly and wonder how anyone with the least bit of PR-consciousness could have permitted such a statement at such an event. It was just another example of an……
· Out-of-control agenda.
In any PR opportunity or crisis, the key is to control the agenda.
Leaks of negative information must be anticipated and preempted, either with clear advance statements or strong responses. In the Bergdahl case – where all the negatives were apparently well known in advance – the White House corkscrewed itself into the no-win position of being immediately on defense.
· Why wasn’t the Congress contacted?
· Why did we have to free these five particularly bad dudes?
· Why did we choose to liberate this American captive and not others in foreign custody?
And so here we are; the questions and White House defensiveness continues, with the President alternately apologizing and then standing by the decision and then back-tracking again, as the agenda slips further from the White House grasp.
Traditionally, American Presidents have used the White House PR bully pulpit, in tight situations, to convert skeptics to converts. In the Obama Administration -- as the botched Bergdahl liberation demonstrates yet again -- the considerable White House PR apparatus has too often been used to convert lemonade into lemons.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He may be reached directly at email@example.com. He is the author of the Prentice-Hall text" The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of "Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise."