The art of justifying a war challenges the professional political communicators’ ability to develop successful strategy for the media and gain public support. Richard Lebow defines three types of international crises and the Iraq war presents a great example for Justification of Hostilities crises. In a nutshell, public relations practitioners need to convince the public that the opponent’s hostile intentions and unwillingness to cooperate makes him responsible for the war. The question is how to sell our side of the story to the media and how to make sure that it is just our message that gets out.
While watching the BBC War spin video I noticed some striking resemblances between the way war was presented to the audience and soap operas’ scenarios.
1. Demonize the enemy to gain public support and interest
A soap opera will never attract public interest if there is no antagonist character responsible for all the misery and suffering of the others. At the outbreak of war, the demonization of the enemy has a vital role in ensuring public support for government actions. Public relations professionals should use every single opportunity to show how anti – democratic the opponent is in order to justify the rightness of the war.
2. Choose a victim that people would feel sympathy for
The story of Private Jessica Lynch’s rescue managed to reach the hearts and minds of the people and played an important role in convincing the public to support the war. She became a war icon used by the government communicators to arouse strong public feeling of nationalism. In the same time her story created a sense of insecurity and vulnerability which highlighted the government role of defender of justice.
3. Keep the audience engaged
Sending journalist at the battlefield was a brilliant tactic applied by the government PR team which satisfied the journalist’s demand for ‘objective’ real-time news. In fact the creation of media centres in Iraq allowed the government to direct skilfully the war footage providing journalists with carefully selected information. On the other hand, the footage could not be completely impartial having in mind that those media representatives lived with the soldiers who offered them protection and brought to light the human angle of the war.
4. Reveal the weakness of the enemy
When public support for the war is constantly declining an effective public relations tactic is to show that the regime is cracking. An image is worth a thousand words! Photos and video footage of surrendering enemy soldiers or friendly football match guarantee media coverage with a minimum insight.
5. Stick to the message
If the protagonist does something wrong it is not intentional. If the antagonist does something wrong it is done on purpose. In order to earn and maintain the public trust, government public relations team should stick to the message and try to manage the information flow despite the enormous amount of war news coverage.
Some of the tactics described above might be criticized for not being in conformity with the democratic values and principles but there is no doubt that they contributed to the shift in public opinion and ensured public support for the war. The only question that needs to be answered is why Bernays’ reputation still haunts public relations professionals.