14 January 2011 - 9:29am | posted by

Review of Sarah Palin's crisis PR strategy in wake of Arizona tragedy

Crisis PR expert Jonathan Hemus takes a look at Sarah Palin’s communications strategy in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings.

Sarah Palin’s week illustrates the power and impact of communication and that public spokespeople should use it with responsibility.

Her initial challenge following the Arizona shootings was the revelation that she had pictured her political opponents in the cross-hairs of a gun. This was always a high risk strategy: had her advisors conducted a risk assessment and decided that the power of the image out-weighed the potential damage should one of them be shot in reality? It seems doubtful.  

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Sarah Palin stayed silent. It’s rarely an effective strategy in a crisis as it allows your critics to shape the debate. As a consequence, she was soon forced out of her self-imposed bunker and communicated via a video on her Facebook page. It’s another example of the way that social media can be used in a crisis. It allows the speaker to get their message across to millions of stakeholders in a controlled and time-efficient way, without the editorial input of the media. The downside is that – as in Sarah Palin’s case – if you refuse to supplement this with media appearances, it can appear that you are afraid to do so, nervous of the difficult questions that will be asked.

The words that Sarah Palin used in the broadcast – in particular “blood libel” – have served to further inflame the situation. It seems implausible that she used these words in an unplanned way – they were surely chosen with great care. Soundbites are the phrases that remain in the memory long after the spokesperson finishes talking - they rise above the rest of the interview and embed themselves in our minds. “Blood libel” certainly fits into this category. But, once again, one has to question Sarah Palin’s communication strategy in terms of the effect of her communication: it has stimulated further criticism and controversy, and raised questions about her fitness to govern.

Ultimately, effective communication is about understanding the perception that you want to create and communicating in a way that achieves this end. Given that Sarah Palin has described herself as a “pitbull with lipstick” it is possible that this week has further reinforced the image that she is seeking to portray. Her challenge is that many Americans may instead see her actions as evidence that she lacks the empathy and foresight to be an effective leader.

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