Historic Night, A PR Plan Gone Awry

All day, the news about the killing of Osama Bin Ladin has captivated the nation and much of the world. It has been a day of pride for Americans and, based on initial reports of how U.S. Special Forces executed their risky mission, that makes sense. But purely from a PR perspective, last night’s announcement fell short of what could have been.

It all started with a tweet from the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer, before 10pm Eastern announcing “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern Time.” An unscheduled Presidential address on a Sunday night? This must be huge news. The Twitterati took it from there and the networks took to the air minutes later, as their anchors and reporters arrived, leading up to what was supposed to be a 10:30 address.

This was an opportunity for the President himself to break the story to the world. It appears that’s how the White House planned it. From a PR standpoint, that was the right call. It was an opportunity to control the message before it leaked. It was an opportunity to lay out the story, directly from the President’s mouth, in his own words, before media reported the story for him. But, despite the well orchestrated plans, the story got away from the White House.

For whatever reasons (maybe it was Congressional briefings that went long, maybe it was the President putting “finishing touches” on the address, maybe it was a combination of things), the President did not speak until after 11:30pm. In that hour plus, the news starting leaking in a big way. At 10:45pm, a quarter-hour after the President was supposed to start talking, CNN couldn’t sit on its hands any longer. Correspondent John King, not President Obama, broke the news that had broken minutes earlier on Twitter and CNN had confirmed since before 10:30 – Osama Bin Ladin had been killed by U.S. forces. The other networks reported the same news at about the same time. By the time the President’s “10:30pm” address began, he told much of the world what it already knew.

Also in that hour of lost control, some outlets reported incorrect information, like Bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan, that it happened a week earlier and that bombing is what killed him. The facts the White House tried to keep straight had been twisted by sources telling sources telling journalists.

This sequence of events shows important PR lessons the White House staff tried to follow:

1) Act quickly – they got the word out fast of the planned 10:30 announcement, using multiple platforms
2) Manage expectations – they slotted a time, so much so that networks like CNN kept information from the audience to give the President a chance to announce it, but the President (and likely many others involved) couldn’t stick to it
3) If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you – instead of the President making the announcement, Congressional and other government staff tipped off journalists because they were given the time.

As powerful and memorable of a news night May 1, 2011 will prove to be, imagine if it had been pulled off as planned.