As communicators, we should learn something from the current US Administration. And when I say learn – I mean “learn” and find ways to “immunize” ourselves from these nasty practices – and definitely not copy them as best practices. And while the “lesson” for me is not a new one – it is an important enough one to pause and take a closer look at it.
The lesson I am talking about is the one teaching us that the power of whispers and rumors far outweighs communication campaigns based on facts and rational arguments (surprise, surprise…).
Remember the McCain rumors swerving around during the South Carolina primaries after he soundly defeated Bush in New Hampshire – unsolicited black child (he, unlike most of us, had enough room in his heart to adopt a girl from Bangladesh), mental problems, being gay, drug addiction issues of his wife, etc. The facts – all allegations were false. The result – a deafening defeat for the candidate who had much of the truth and credibility on his side. Then came the “swift boat” veterans’ ads against Kerry. The facts – dubious claims at best. The result – a deafening defeat for the guy who actually fought and defended our country instead of going AWOL (I am not arguing whether he did or not – just that the “facts” on that never got cleared up vs. the “rumors” on Kerry totally overshadowed his real record). Then there was the leak exposing an active, deep undercover CIA agent by a senior Bush Jr. Official – something which Bush Sr. had declared an “act of treason.” Such information is not only good enough to ruin your career, but it is life threatening as well.
Another example happened just a few days ago – when the Washington Post (here – requires subscription), Newsweek and NPR incorrectly announced that the Governor of Louisiana had never declared a State of Emergency (via TPM – here). According to the Washington Post, the source of this rumor was a senior Administration official – probably the same person who should be in jail instead of Judith Miller of the New York Times.
Heck, after hearing the story on NPR – I found myself retelling the story. And needless to say, I really regret that now!
Why do rumor stories spread like wild fires? Why do they defy factual counter arguments? Why do they even fool those whose job it is to fact check information?
Part of the reason is that people have a bigger sense of ownership in those stories. They feel more “in the know” and are more likely to “retell” the story as is. Often times, these rumors are also easier to understand than the factual stories that matter – again, making them easier to “retell”.
So what do you do if such a rumor campaign hits you?
Short term, the only thing to do is to rectify the record (for posterity – as you cannot win the battle with facts in the heat of a rumor campaign) and change the playing field as quickly as possible. In order to do that, you need to find something more viral than the original rumor campaign.
[UPDATE 09/07] Here is an actual timeline of what happened (Adapted from: Katrina Timeline)
Friday, Aug. 26: Gov. Kathleen Blanco declares a state of emergency in Louisiana and requests troop assistance.
Saturday, Aug. 27: Gov. Blanco asks for federal state of emergency. A federal emergency is declared giving federal officials the authority to get involved.
Sunday, Aug. 28: Mayor Ray Nagin orders mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. President Bush warned of Levee failure by National Hurricane Center. National Weather Service predicts area will be “uninhabitable” after Hurricane arrives. First reports of water toppling over the levee appear in local paper.
Monday, Aug. 29: Levee breaches and New Orleans begins to fill with water, Bush travels to Arizona and California to discuss Medicare. FEMA chief finally responds to federal emergency, dispatching employees but giving them two days to arrive on site.
Tuesday, Aug. 30: Mass looting reported, security shortage cited in New Orleans. Pentagon says that local authorities have adequate National Guard units to handle hurricane needs despite governor’s earlier request. Bush returns to Crawford for final day of vacation. TV coverage is around-the-clock Hurricane news.
Wednesday, Aug. 31: Tens of thousands trapped in New Orleans including at Convention Center and Superdome in “medieval” conditions. President Bush finally returns to Washington to establish a task force to coordinate federal response. Local authorities run out of food and water supplies.
Thursday, Sept. 1: New Orleans descends into anarchy. New Orleans Mayor issues a “Desperate SOS” to federal government. Bush claims nobody predicted the breach of the levees despite multiple warnings and his earlier briefing.
Friday, Sept. 2: Karl Rove begins Bush administration campaign to blame state and local officials—despite their repeated requests for help. Bush stages a photo-op—diverting Coast Guard helicopters and crew to act as backdrop for cameras. Levee repair work orchestrated for president’s visit and White House press corps.
Saturday, Sept. 3: Bush blames state and local officials. Senior administration official (possibly Rove) caught in a lie claiming Gov. Blanco had not declared a state of emergency or asked for help.
Monday, Sept. 5: New Orleans officials begin to collect their dead.