Cheat-Seeking Missles

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Of Stonewalling and Blackwater

Bad news and snooping reporters are never greeted with welcoming arms. In my business -- high-level public relations consulting -- crises relating to bad news that my clients would rather not see are depressingly familiar affairs.

It's hard work and clients come at it from different ways, with the best using "explain" as their strategy in a word, but others going for "delay" or even "cover up." Only the last response is unethical, but neither of the last two are winners, so my clients get counsel that is based in "explaining."

Too bad the State Department isn't my client; look at this, from the LA Times today:

Even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended her department's oversight of private security contractors, new evidence surfaced Thursday that the U.S. sought to conceal details of Blackwater shootings of Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

In one instance, internal e-mails show that State Department officials tried to deflect a 2005 Los Angeles Times inquiry into an alleged killing of an Iraqi civilian by Blackwater guards.

Get it? Today's efforts by State are being undermined by poor decisions made two years ago ... reporters never forget. And agencies and corporation never remember that their emails aren't private.

"Give [the Los Angeles Times] what we can and then dump the rest on Blackwater," one State Department official wrote to another in the e-mails, which were obtained by ABC News. "We can't win this one."

One department official taking part in a chain of e-mails noted that the "findings of the investigation are to remain off-limits to the reporter." Another recommended that there be no mention of the existence of a criminal investigation since such a reference would "raise questions and issues."
The embarrassment of the moment seemed a compelling argument against disclosure in 2005, leading now to that embarrassment being compounded by stories of stonewalling and deceit by public officials.

What would have happened if State had come clean in 2005? Clearly, there would have been a scandal of sorts in 2005. But it would have been a scandal largely implicating Blackwater, not one that besmirched the administration itself.

And more important, a dozen or perhaps more people would still be alive today, because new policies would have been set in place two years earlier.

We had a case recently when a reporter went after one of our clients. He called every prior associate of the client he could find, looking for unfair business practices of some sort or another, because from the very outset he was convinced our client was a crook -- not because of anything he knew about our client, but because of his preconceived negative attitudes about the client's industry.

Of course he found stuff. You can't be a big, far-flung, successful entrepreneur for 15 years and not have some soured business relationships or flopped endeavors in your background.

We spend two weeks furiously trying to shake the reporter back to reality by putting him in touch with dozens of new sources, and getting those involved in the negative news to explain that the client was playing straightforwardly, despite whatever may have happened at the time.

In the end, the reporter remained true to form, ignoring all the facts and writing his story the way he'd set out to do it in the first place. (Sorry, no link; it's not in the client's best interest.)

About a week later, the LA Times did a story on the same client, and it was a beautiful thing -- overall quite positive, hitting most of our key messages, and none of the stuff that had so fixated the other reporter. It turned out so well in part because we were able to quickly disclose all from the outset, using the research we had pulled together for the reporter from the Daily Crapsheet.

The media live off people who never seem to learn these simple lessons and continue to fall into their trap. You would think that State -- supposedly where the really smart people go, if they're going into government -- would be far too sophisticated to try to cheat their way through the news cycle, but again and again they prove that they are no smarter -- even less smart -- than the rest of us ...

... but certainly smarter than the Kings of What Were They Thinking at FEMA, who have written a new chapter in Dealing Stoopid With The Media.

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