Like everyone else, I have friends and acquaintances that bash President Obama at every opportunity. I am not such a person. I have rooted for him to succeed. I even think he has been admirable at times. But when I look at what’s going on in the world from my perspective of more than four decades of PR experience, I come to the awful conclusion that Obama’s PR strategy (to the degree it exists at all) is just plain awful.
Actually, the president’s PR strategy is more than awful – it’s dangerous. That’s because we are in a war with ISIS that is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought. Killing the enemy and controlling territory is certainly a factor when determining who is winning, but in the final analysis victory will belong to the forces that capture the emotional and ideological support and loyalty of people. So, how is our Commander-In-Chief doing setting the game plan and managing that component of the war? Here are his five most serious flaws.
- Obama’s wartime PR efforts don’t even exist. It’s as if we were fighting across trenches in WW I and neglected to give rifles to our soldiers. We’re not even fighting ISIS to win emotional and intellectual support. We have taken our ball and gone home, but the enemy has more balls (double entendre intended). Is that due to naiveté, incompetence, arrogance in his existing approach, or just plain dereliction of duty? ISIS has given the rest of the world a lesson in how to capture (sometimes by force; sometimes by persuasion) control of people’s support and loyalty by using a robust communications campaign, including social media and dramatic images, and by adopting an obviously deliberate and thought-out campaign. And how has the U.S. used those lessons? Apparently not at all. If the U.S. were active on the PR front, wouldn’t we see some evidence of that? I see none. I watch TV news shows and the Sunday talk shows. Generals and other experts show up. They make a point of explaining how this is a war of ideas. Well, what are we doing to win that war? Hell – what are we doing to even be a participant in that war? There’s a knot in my stomach just thinking about it – so, let’s move to the next issue.
- Obama lies about his overall war strategy. His recent speech to the nation to discuss his updated reaction to the Paris, San Bernardino and other recent acts of terrorism was a non-event. It was a re-articulation of the strategy he has already defined several times in the past. That’s not a reaction; it’s not an update; it’s not newsworthy; and it doesn’t respond to the expectations created when the President says he is going to make the third speech from the Oval Office in 7-years. Some people may think it’s just good marketing when an outdated product is given a refreshed look and new packaging. Yes, it is. But presenting new branding as synonymous with launching a new product is misleading. Well, that’s the polite way to term it. You could also call it a lie. I still do not understand what the president thought he was trying to accomplish with that speech. Maybe: “Look I’ve put lipstick on the pig!” Mr. President: get real!
- He has made himself an unbelievable spokesperson. Look – Donald Trump is hardly credible. He tells obvious lies and then doesn’t back off of them. But – irony of irony – lacking credibility doesn’t necessarily make someone unbelievable. Trump supporters apparently are willing to give him a pass when he says something untrue for one simple reason: they believe he will seek his defined goals without letup. Obama stole believability from himself when he shrunk away from his “line-in-the-sand” ultimatum to Assad. If you were running a campaign to sell a certain brand of aspirin and your spokesperson made a public statement that aspirin did not work for him, he’d render himself unbelievable and you’d fire the spokesperson, wouldn’t you? Well ….
- He lacks a viable messaging philosophy. The first step in any PR strategy is to develop a “Messaging Bible.” That’s a very brief articulation of how you want to be positioned and the limited number of key messages you are going to repeat so that you will achieve that position in the minds of your targets. What are Obama’s key messages in this war? He has tried messages such as ISIS is JV … that ISIS can’t really do anything in the U.S. … that ISIS is being “contained” … and there have been numerous other messages that had to be jettisoned. If he had an effective PR campaign, people would be able to echo the key messages that summarize our policy towards ISIS and other terrorists. Can you do that? He has no messaging philosophy.
- He has failed to set a tone.Is he optimistic about the ultimate outcome of this conflict? Pessimistic? What is his tone … his outlook? If he communicated a sense of optimism (as I believe is incumbent on a leader who leads from “in front”), I and other Americans may take the hint and adopt the same attitude. But his attitude is: this is going to be difficult and complex and take a long time. OK, I buy that. But when all is said and done, are we Americans going to be able to recapture some of our spirit of hope? Should we believe the U.S. could take a leadership role in getting the world right again? What should we believe Mr. President?
There was a point in our history and the history of warfare when PR strategy (or, call it “propaganda”) was a collateral issue. Important but not integral. Today it is not only integral but it is also vital. In tennis terms, overseeing an awful PR strategy is a critical unforced error. I truly find it very hard to believe that the President has allowed this to happen.
About Doug Poretz: After a four+ decade long career crafting public relations and communications strategies at the C-suite level, I now work with a limited number of clients, helping them rethink and improve their approach to how they communicate. For more about me, click here. For how I work with clients, click here. And for my numerous previous blog posts, click here. You can sign up for alerts about forthcoming posts by completing an easy form at my blog.
Photo/graphic credit: dureeandcompany.com