One thing is certain. There are many PR lessons that President Joe Biden’s evacuation strategy from Afghanistan have provided.
Another thing that is certain is that there have been many PR crises thus far in 2021. Arguably the most important one occurred not in an agency setting, but for the world to see day after day – the airlifting of Americans, U.S. allies and Afghans that transported more than 122,000 people to safe havens, but the management of which was disparaged by many in the news media.
The third thing that is certain is that no matter your opinion about the evacuation, the crisis response to negative media coverage strategized by the CEO of the situation, President Biden, provided lessons that are different from the ones normally suggested by PR crises specialists.
Political PR crises are not new to me. (Neither are agency client crises on the national and international scene.)
My first public relations job was with a political agency where I worked on projects ranging from the campaigns of local candidates to presidential ones. Every day political operatives would excitedly report a crisis, or to be more precise what they thought was a crisis, which usually was nothing more than a negative news article that would be forgotten the following day. “Forget about it,” was most often our advice. “If you want to reply to the story it’ll make it a he said, he said situation, which can develop into a true PR crisis.” Thus, when I joined Burson-Marsteller, I urged people to pay attention to the PR tactics of politicians and their PR staffers because they could learn strategies that were not taught in communications schools, one of the most important being to be flexible.
From a political perspective, whatever decision about how the evacuation from Afghanistan was carried out, and whether a self-imposed deadline by Biden should have been given, was sure to receive criticism. But from a PR analysis of the situation there are several takeaways from the situation that can be applied to corporate PR crises situations.
Here are a few of the most obvious lessons to be remembered. The two most important ones:
What he did right:
Unlike many CEO’s who try to duck from the press during difficult times, Biden made himself available, holding several national pressers
The lesson: For national politicians like President Biden, the choice is clear. If he wants to convince the American public that his decision was correct, he must make himself available to the press However, for a private or public corporation, the decision to make a CEO overly available to the press must be considered on a one-on-one basis: Will the CEO come across sympathetic, truthful or arrogant? Is the CEO willing to tell the truth? Can the CEO be trusted not to make statements that can be proven false or can create legal problems?
Most times, in my opinion, it’s better to let executives directly involved in a PR crisis be the main spokespersons. (Biden did so many times, letting his secretary of state and military commanders conduct press briefings.) Having arrogant CEOs, as many are, be the spokespersons can result in continuous negative news coverage. Examples are the coverage that the CEO’s of Boeing and BP received because of their comments. and the continuing negative press the National Football League received prior to admitting that hard hits can cause life-altering brain damage.
What he did right:
On the day of the news of the horrific attack by Isis-K that killed American soldiers and others, the president fully knowing that he would open himself to hostile questions met the press.
The lesson: Not hiding from the media during a crisis positioned him as an individual who is open with the public and is not fearful of being criticized on national television. Importantly, it also gave him another opportunity to explain the reasons for his decisions in his own words and not through the filter of news organizations.
Here are seven other important PR lessons that should be remembered from Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal:
- Never promise something regarding a situation that you can’t control.
- Never make excuses to the client why a program is failing. Instead, always make suggestions on how to improve it.
- Spinning a situation only upsets the media. Be truthful.
- During a PR crisis, don’t expect your media buddies to write flattering stories. They have to satisfy their editors.
- During his pressers, Biden always included his talking points that everything he does is in America’s interests and that he will not send Americans to die in Afghanistan.
- Never tell a client that you’re definite a project can be completed by a specified date. Instead say we hope to complete it by ??? but might need a little longer.
- By permitting members of his administration to conduct their own pressers, Biden made certain that his talking points regarding his decision—saving American lives being the most important – was being repeated on the days when he didn’t hold a presser.
And even after the evacuation was completed on August 31, administrations officials continued repeating the talking points when interviewed.
Biden can be faulted for not following some of the above rules, in particular Numbers 1, and 6. But in my opinion, from a PR tactics viewpoint, there are more good lessons to be learned than bad ones.
The Afghanistan situation is similar to many corporate PR crises
Like an iceberg, only a small portion of it was visible and it was out of the public mind—until there was a newsworthy occurrence in Afghanistan, the danger posed to U.S. forces during the evacuation procedure revealed the danger.
In corporate PR crises, whenever there is a major oil spill, the BP Deepwater Horizon situation is often recalled. And in Boeing’s ongoing crisis, “calving” keeps its crises in the news almost every week.
President Biden’s statements regarding the Afghanistan evacuation differed in a major way from the declarations made by the chief executives of Boeing, BP and almost every other ceo of a company with a PR crisis: Biden, unlike corporate honchos who look for scapegoats, took responsibility for his decisions, a tactic not in the playbook of self-anointed PR crises specialists.
The fall-out from President Biden’s Afghanistan evacuation strategy will certainly be debated until the next presidential election in 2024. Thus, there will be other PR lessons from the political arena that will occur that you can use in none political agency client situations. All you have to do to learn them is to pay attention to the political scene.
If there’s only one important lessons that PR people should remember from the Afghanistan evacuation situation, it’s that once a company has a PR crisis the account team must always have a plan—even years after the crisis—because you never know when the crisis will again become a topic of an article.
Many years ago, I originated a maxim regarding PR crises situations that has since been co-opted by others (without giving credit to the originator, not an unusual occurrence in our business). It’s that unlike clothing, there is no one size fits all PR crises response. Each crisis needs original thinking. And that’s how President Biden handled his responses to the considerable negative media overage regarding his Afghan evacuation. He used a team approach instead of being the sole spokesperson.