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January 01, 2002

Crisis Mode: Information Dissemination During Times of Conflict

by Frank Mankiewicz

Throughout our history, communications and marketing efforts have played an integral (if often concealed) role during times of conflict and crisis. Leaders necessarily tried to persuade both domestic and international audiences, while carefully monitoring the release of sensitive information about military intelligence, strategy, and tactical operations.

The present conflict—this "war on terrorism"—while well short of a war is different only in public awareness of the strategy. President Bush and his advisors have, on numerous occasions, openly discussed their aggressive public relations strategy while stressing the importance of their marketing efforts. The value of strategic communications is exponentially magnified during this conflict given its unprecedented nature and the fact that the American public as well as the international community have come to expect to receive uncensored information in real time.

A Misguided Strategy

The widely publicized and highly orchestrated public relations campaign adopted by the Bush administration in this "war on terrorism" is eerily reminiscent of the propaganda war waged during World War II. The administration has launched a full-blown public relations assault on several fronts, trying to secure public support for its military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts with the appointment of a high-powered ad executive to promote the "American brand" overseas—especially to the Arab community. The effort is said to be designed to combat the propaganda of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network by establishing a presence within popular Arab media sources and promoting foreign-language radio broadcasts, similar to "Voice of America" during World War II.

So, former Ambassador Dennis Ross appeared on the Arab satellite network, Al Jazeera, to counter an early videotaped message from Osama bin Laden, and Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on Egyptian television to defend the American bombing campaign. Radio broadcasts are transmitted from a nearby aircraft and dominate Afghan airwaves with American propaganda and information. In an attempt to inject even more muscle into the public relations effort, senior political advisor Karl Rove met with leading executives in Hollywood to entice the entertainment community to help develop modern propaganda vehicles.

Another familiar strategy currently being recycled by the Bush administration is the creation of the White House "war room." Similar to the Office of War Information during World War II, representatives from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Office of Homeland Security work together to monitor and execute the global communications and messaging efforts around the clock, to ensure that the United States protects its coveted position in the battle for public opinion.

By engaging in many of these dated strategies, the administration is walking a fine line as it is regularly encouraging the public to adopt a World War II mindset—a precarious posture as the nature of this conflict is nothing like that of the Second World War or any other war, or even war at all. Yet the administration, and often its handmaidens in the media, never miss an opportunity to tell Americans, "we are at war." The current conflict, with any luck, will not be a prolonged military effort, but a series of defined tactical strikes against suspected terrorist strongholds and leaders. It is not a war; it is a response to a huge and horrifying terrorist attack—four airplanes hijacked and nearly 3,000 killed, as terrorists flew into targets in New York and Washington. The hijackers were nineteen in number, fifteen of whom were Saudi Arabian. (One French citizen from Morocco has now been indicted as a co-conspirator.) In response, we have bombed Afghanistan extensively, with substantial civilian casualties, and driven from power the Taliban leaders and regime.

The White House is even adopting messaging themes from World War II as the State Department and National Security Agency recently announced a "Shh" campaign similar to the memorable "Loose Lips Sink Ships" promotion. Americans are warned to keep quiet about seemingly harmless information that might "jeopardize national security"—even to the extent of concealing the floor plans of office buildings—in a misguided effort to rationalize the ongoing military campaign by attempting to draw parallels between the current conflict and real war.

The public, both here and abroad, is being overloaded—and overwhelmed—by unnecessary information and propaganda. The Bush administration is overselling the conflict by flooding us with a never-ending stream of messages, most of which communicate the same theme—thereby diluting the value of each message. The administration should realize "actions speak louder than words," and try to generate popular support for its military efforts, while taking full advantage of opportunities publicly to express solidarity with the Muslim community, victims of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world, and other democratic nations generally.

For example, by visiting a local mosque, referring to the nation of "Palestine," and attending a prayer service commemorating the holy month of Ramadan, President Bush has neutralized more Muslim hostility for America’s efforts than any press release, billboard, or radio message ever could. These actions are strong enough to sell themselves and do not need a communications blitz or public relations campaign to strengthen their impact.

Information Dissemination

Since the advent of the bombing campaign on October 7, the media have been hungry for access to independent sources of information. However, the government has steadily enforced inflexible restrictions governing media access to specific tactical information and service personnel. Similarly, the Pentagon is closely guarding expectations as it continues to discuss the program’s objectives and goals in the broadest possible terms. This strategy of minimizing expectations and pertinent information releases is, by its nature, controversial, but given the unprecedented nature of this campaign, it potentially could damage our military, diplomatic, and public relations efforts.

Lessons learned during previous conflicts, most notably in Vietnam, have greatly influenced policies governing information access and public expectations. Successive administrations continually embellished our military position throughout the Vietnam struggle, vastly overstating enemy casualties and thus, resulting in grossly inflated expectations and, ultimately, a massive public relations embarrassment with the Tet offensive.

Now, to manage expectations closely is certainly a good public relations strategy and the Bush administration is being very careful not to inflate those expectations. However, by continually releasing vague statements regarding the strategic objectives of our military efforts, and worse, by announcing frequent "crises" and "credible evidence" of another imminent terrorist attack, the administration is jeopardizing support from both the domestic public and international allies.

Many Americans claim to be unsure of exactly who—or what—we are fighting against. Of course, we understand that, in the short term, our servicemen are attempting to overthrow the Taliban regime and disperse the Al Qaeda network, but the administration has resolutely refused to answer the question, "then what?"

President Bush has repeatedly stated that this is a campaign against all terrorist networks and other enemies of democracy. This is a very problematic statement because, in reality, our military is highly unlikely to launch an offensive against such groups as the IRA, Tamils, Kurds, or Basques, for example; in the long term, it will become increasingly difficult to support conflicts that we don’t fully understand.

Additionally, several strategic European allies are reportedly perplexed by the administration’s aid requests, as they report to be unclear about the overall objectives of the campaign. These nations are therefore uncertain of how best to provide post-Taliban financial, intelligence, or military assistance, and additionally, flatly oppose our "military tribunals" proposal and have announced they will not extradite suspected terrorists if they are to be tried by those methods. Complicating this issue are the sensationalist reports and leaks from "high officials." Many of these, such as the announcement that Air Force One and the president were targets on September 11, were created out of whole cloth; and apparently there have been at least two warnings of future terrorist attacks based on "credible evidence." This tactic, although hardly unique to the current conflict, seems to be both a strategy to stimulate popular support for the campaign and ensure that the administration and particularly intelligence bodies are not embarrassed by another surprise attack. For example, by leaking through favored correspondents that bin Laden is attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration is not only encouraging other nations to contribute to our efforts but by releasing statements warning Americans to be on "heightened alert," it is protecting its image in the event of a terrorist attack.

With each such sensational warning the administration is losing credibility—both at home and abroad—as the public is becoming increasingly weary of these announcements, and dubious of future warnings.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

Before we can assess our gains and losses on the diplomatic front, assuming the political efforts have gone well with a new government installed in Kabul and Osama bin Laden either dead or in custody — our government must first be prepared to tell our countrymen, and then the world, where we are headed. Is there really a "war on terrorism," in which case we will need troops in and over Belfast, Bilbao, Jakarta, and Jerusalem—with scant possibilities of success? And worse, with no coalition of nations to support us?

Frank Mankiewicz

Frank Mankiewicz is vice chairman of Hill and Knowlton in Washington, D.C. Mr. Mankiewicz served as press secretary to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy and was presidential campaign director for Senator George McGovern.