Most of us have heard about those 94 words: the now infamous talking points that Susan Rice used to
explain what happened in the Benghazi tragedy. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal featured a blow-by-blow account of how a CIA assessment that was at first brutally frank and accurate got watered down, as it bounced around the powers that be like a pinball. The article reported the chain of events, and how public statements evolved, culminating in Rice's appearance on the Sunday morning political talk shows.
Here is an excerpt:
Behind the political showdown over the deadly U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, are a few dozen heavily edited words.
The 94-word intelligence summary emerged from a daylong email debate
between more than two dozen intelligence officials, in which they
contested and whittled the available evidence into a bland summary with
no reference to al Qaeda, an assessment the administration now
acknowledges was wide of the mark.
Now famous as "the talking points," the 94 words were used by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice
on Sunday talk shows days after the attack. A detailed examination of how U.S. assessments were turned into the
talking points reveals a highly cautious, bureaucratic process that had
the effect of watering down the U.S.'s own intelligence.
The unfortunate result of this situation is that Rice's account – which seems to be the one that is most often cited – provided inaccurate information to the public and gave fodder to Republicans and Romney campaign.
I don't know if Susan Rice sought or got advice from a PR professional before going on TV and sharing the "party line" version of events; if so, this was not mentioned.
Some might see this as a good thing, that a flack wasn't brought in; but perhaps that was part of the problem.
A competent media adviser (one who had visibility into situation – but the objectivity of an outsider) would have thrown cold water on the whole ill-conceived enterprise and said "look guys this may sound good now but we will be toast if we go with this."
(This is not to let Susan Rice off the hook, she made the statement, and that is where the buck should stop; the article reports that she did not believe she had clearance to improvise around the script).
Unfortunately, some just see PR as people who Spam reporters to get clients in the press (see my last post, which shares an example of this distorted view). Media training and strategy are also part of the job; good PR pros have the guts to stare down a tough situation and give their best advice despite the torpedoes.
Did you know that it is an important role for the profession? If you are in PR, are you that kind of advisor?