Image Patrol: WikiLeaks Squares Off With the U.S. Government

Crisis, like beauty, is in the eye of a beholder. Many’s the client who has asked me to monitor an imminent PR crisis for them, only to see it blow over from lack of interest.

From inside the corporate bubble, disaster always seems to be just around the corner. In the real world, what news media considers a crisis is vastly different from what corporate staff and the PR team see as a crisis. Some of this difference is simply a matter of perspective, and we all know that the perspective inside and outside the boardroom are two vastly different matters. Inside the average boardroom, all that matters is the brand they are entrusted to protect. In the real world, most of your news is just a mosquito on the elephant that is the news media—all those reporters, bloggers and citizen journalists that stay focused on thousands of different things that they see as important for at least an hour and a half.

In the case of the WikiLeaks kerfuffle, the more I read, the more I am convinced that who is winning or losing on any given day depends on your perspective. The perspective of the government is: The leak was a crime and the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law —including both the person who smuggled the documents out in a Lady Gaga CD case, as well as the person in charge of the media outlet that published them, Julian Assange. The perspective of most of the group Anonymous, the folks responsible for denial of service attacks against anyone giving WikiLeaks a hard time—including Joe Lieberman, PayPal, Amazon, MasterCard and Visa —is that Assange is a hero, a member of the media and is being illegally harassed and prosecuted. The perspective of the media is a combination of “this is a great story” and “yikes, this could have huge free speech implications.” So who is winning or losing at any given moment depends a lot on your perspective.

To be transparent about my perspective, I have a huge amount of respect for the PR group in the State Department, and said so in my newsletter ( I have a sneaking suspicion that Hillary Clinton’s experience with the media has a huge impact on its approach. From her personal visits/calls to the people who were mentioned in the cables to the framing of the crisis in the news media, I believe there is some very good PR advice being handed down.

The message from many leading media outlets is that rather than damage the image of the U.S., the emerging story line is that the cables make our diplomats seem smart and insightful—and even prescient. That’s not going to help them, however, with the people who share WikiLeaks’ belief in supreme transparency, or the insulted foreign leaders. But for the average American, it works.

In contrast, Assange and the folks at WikiLeaks seem to be in the middle of a crisis of which they long ago lost control. We can start with the secrecy and mystery surrounding the actual organization and the person leading it. It goes downhill from there. Their “statements” are all one-way pronouncements from lawyers to the media. This has allowed the news media and politicians to essentially do with the crisis whatever suits their agenda.

A quick review of media coverage finds it full of wild speculation, exaggeration and outright lies. Some of this is just Assange’s personality and attitude that comes across in interviews. And perhaps the nature of the story precludes any other outcomes, but I have to wonder if they ever had any plan to deal with the media fallout of their actions. In fact, Assange told Time magazine , “I can see that the media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it.”

As a result, they have fallen back on a consistent string of messages, but are losing the battle for accuracy. PRN


Katie Paine is founder and CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a communications measurement agency. She can be reached at [email protected].

U.S. Department of State

Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F Given the nature of the leaks and the subject—world diplomacy—this was going to get international coverage whether they liked it or not. If it is on the Internet, it is a global story, no matter what. You may think your audience is only U.S. or only local, but you never know whether that poster (or poseur) is next door or a continent or two away.
Effectiveness of spokespeople A Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a great spokesperson, and she addressed the issue with candor, humor and passion. What more can you ask for? When you need to get your version of a story out there, find someone who is used to talking in sound bites and authentic and knowledgeable about the topic. If they can make journalists laugh, it’s even better. Remember, in a situation like this the tendency is to not believe your spokesperson, so make sure it is someone the media can trust.
Communication of key messages A When leading national publications speculate that maybe having the cables leaked wasn’t that bad since it presented diplomats as smart and insightful, you’re getting your message across. Too often, corporations get lost in the emotions of “a leak” and worry about trying to track down the source. In today’s world, that may be impossible. You need, instead, to deal with the subject of the leaks and manage the fall out.
Management of negative messages C Aside from Clinton’s calls and visits to unruffle the feathers of our allies, the command and control aspect of government emerged. Calls for restrictions on WikiLeaks are bound to concern journalists, and when politicians begin to demand that someone be prosecuted or even killed, we no longer look as smart. In any crisis, journalists are your partners, not your enemies. If you think of their needs and their perspectives, you’ll keep them on your side. Otherwise, situations like this one can quickly go downhill as journalists begin to see a threat to their First Amendment rights.
Impact on U.S. voters C It isn’t clear how much America cares about Julian Assange, WikiLeaks or the cables at all. Jobs, taxes and the economy are much more top of mind. Unless you are a journalist, into social media or a fan of WikiLeaks, leaks of State Department cables probably aren’t too big a deal in your life. Remember, this is all about perspective. Yes, leaks are annoying and frustrating, but ultimately the job is to improve America’s image abroad and solve certain thorny issues like Mideast peace. The key is not to get distracted by the crisis of the moment, and focus on your goals.
Overall score B Net net, I think the U.S. came out OK in this one, and since improving the U.S. reputation around the world is job one for the State Department, I’d say it didn’t hurt, and might have helped. Stay focused on the goals and objectives, keep things in perspective and context and, finally, look at data to decide what worked and what didn’t.


Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage A The goal of WikiLeaks is to expose governments and bad guys, so naturally getting as much exposure as possible helps accomplish that goal. This is one case where any exposure is good exposure. Keep the goal in mind. While I’m sure Assange didn’t want to end up in jail, the international manhunt only drew more attention WikiLeaks. And while much of the coverage may not be what we call “desirable,” if it helps accomplish the goal, it’s good.
Effectiveness of spokespeople D Assange himself is a flawed spokesperson. While you can’t fault him for staying on message, and one-on-one with newspaper readers he’s good, journalists constantly describe him as mercurial and difficult. In any crisis, the key to success is having a spokesperson that the media trusts, is likable and available.
Communication of key messages F While they clearly have gotten messages out to fans and followers, it has done little to correct the flood of misperceptions. Most of the information has come from Assange’s lawyers, and lawyers seldom make good spokespeople If your spokesperson isn’t effective and the amount of incorrect information is growing, you may want to consider changing spokespeople. Volatility or ego have no place. You need someone who comes across as authentic and calm under fire.
Management of negative messages F The amount of misinformation circulating about WikiLeaks tops any crisis we’ve ever studied. If you can’t come clean with the media in a crisis, someone else will frame your story and may or may not get all the facts correct.
Impact on supporters A This is one area where all of the brouhaha is only helping the cause. As I write this, supporters are attacking any and all Web sites that have done harm or advocated controls on WikiLeaks. It seems that more visibility is flushing friends out of the woodwork who are finding ways around the attempts to cut off funds. For every respectable tweeter out there, there are thousands of others who know computers well and who will make sure that things are published. Since you can’t manage or control it, the best thing you can do is to build relationships that will help you weather the next storm.
Overall score C Looking specifically at WikiLeaks’ goals and objectives, this really hasn’t hurt much, it hasn’t helped either... Raising visibility to new heights and new constituencies is always a risk. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. You will never withstand an onslaught of netizens with an agenda. The best you can do is win over some supporters that will help you moderate the outcome.