TO: Fares Kallas
FROM: Brown Lloyd James
RE: Crisis Communications Analysis
It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive. Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions—by not being aimed directly at President Assad--have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership.
However, the tone of the Administration’s statements has grown noticeably harsher in recent weeks and may be nearing a tipping point that could make a reassessment of the US position towards Syria inevitable. One potential bellwether of this shift is the transformation in the public statements of US Senator John Kerry, the Administration’s de facto point man on outreach to Syria. Senator Kerry has begun to publicly backtrack his often-repeated confidence in the leadership’s ability to reform.
Media coverage of the situation in Syria has tracked with the Administration’s political arc. US media coverage of events in Syria was initially marginal, but has since moved closer to the front of the newspaper and the top of the broadcast news. This not only reinforces the Administration’s change of tone, it is emboldening critics--who maintain that Syria's reform efforts are not sincere--and building up pressure on the US government to take further, more drastic steps against the country.
Assessment of Syria’s Communications:
Strategically, Syria has had an imbalance in its communications approach since the beginning of the crisis. If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria’s actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place.
No one within the leadership seems to “own” the reform agenda from a communications standpoint. Beyond the government reshuffle and the President’s two dramatic speeches, reform has taken a back seat to the immediate political crisis, which dominates headlines and the public’s perception of events. Domestically, This may result in a situation in which the demonstrators have been sent back to their houses, but predominantly out of fear rather than conviction that their government is responsive to their concerns—a recipe for restiveness and instability going forward. Here in the US and the west, the imbalance will embolden critics and reinforce those who don’t believe reform is sincere.
Syria seems to be communicating with two hands. One is offering reform and the other, rule of law. Rule of law is a fist. Reform is an open hand. Right now the fist appears to the outside world, and probably to many Syrians, as though it is ten times bigger than the outstretched palm. They must be brought into better balance.
Reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved, at home and abroad, or else the credibility of these efforts—and a key part of the President’s appeal and popularity among the people—will be diminished. Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad.
In our view, the President needs to communicate more often and with more finely-tuned messaging and the First Lady needs to get in the game. The absence of a public figure as popular, capable, and attuned to the hopes of the people as Her Excellency at such a critical moment is conspicuous. The key is to show strength and sympathy at once.
The “reform” program does not yet have a face or brand. A public, visible campaign should be launched, even while the crisis continues, to engage ordinary Syrians in reform. This will keep people focused on the future and remind Syrians and the world of the President’s hopes and expectations for the country.
The campaign should deploy street teams in communities to poll citizens on their reform priorities and ideas; each team member can post their experiences online or on social media to create a cross current to the criticisms that dominate those mediums.
This campaign should include a listening tour w FL and PR together. They can make unannounced stops that carefully engage families and young people.
The campaign should create a reform “echo-chamber” by developing media coverage outside of Syria that points to the President’s difficult task of wanting reform, but conducted in an non-chaotic, rational way. The conditions for reform include peace and stability. These stories can be developed through direct interviews with the President and other senior advisors, op-ed and commentary articles written by credible third parties. This coverage will rebound into Syria.
The campaign should be branded with a forward-looking title, such as “Syria al-Yaum, Syria Bukra.”
Communications can also be improved on the security side. President Assad has ordered investigations into troops and security forces that defied his command not to fire on unarmed civilians. The leadership should make a very public, visible show of punishing/firing/indicting troops that violate his orders. It would be a way of unequivocally showing that anyone who breaks the law--whether they be demonstrators or soldiers--will be held accountable. It will also demonstrate his fairness and his committment that his objective is to restore calm and civility so that reform can take place.
Syria must improve its ability to contain negative media stories circulated by opposition figures living outside Syria. This includes countering rumors (such as the recent example that stated Her Excellency has “left Syria for London”) and the daily torrent of criticism and lies. Such a professionalized, through capability would include:
24-hour media monitoring and response system should be in place with assets in UK and US markets.
Social media sites should be monitored and false sites should be challenged and removed.
A steady, constantly updated messaging document that contains talking points geared to latest developments.
Efforts should be made to convey “normalcy” and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos.
A crisis communications structure should be developed to help manage daily communications. Daily messages, statements and press releases should be developed by this team and disseminated worldwide.
As suggested above, messaging should be evaluated on a daily-basis. From a general standpoint, Syria should:
Continue to stress that the majority of its people have legitimate grievances that the leadership wants to address. However, appeal to Syrians’ patriotism and emphasize that there is no need to destroy the country to achieve goals that everyone shares: a free and prosperous country.
Acknowledge that the violence taking place is regrettable. But the leadership did not seek this. The leadership is obligated to protect Syria and to create the conditions of calm necessary for reform to take place.
Continue to express confidence in the future, and that the crisis is waning.