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September 13, 2010
How President Obama Flubbed the Mosque Debate
 
Two characteristics that are commonly linked together are the ability to manage in a crisis and gifted communications skills. We seem to assume those automatically go together in a gifted leader; however, if there's one situation that proved this isn't always the case, it's the Manhattan mosque debate.

As most reading this column have probably heard, a Manhattan developer and the leader of a mosque in the financial district teamed together to promote the idea of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan called Park 51. While the development cleared its final hurdle on Aug. 3 when the city's Landmark Preservation Commission approved its construction, a national battle was just getting underway.

Many Republican and conservative leaders -- coincidentally all from outside New York City -- pounced on the story, with Sarah Palin going as far as to call the mosque an “unnecessary provocation.” New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was the only sane voice in the conversation and the only one to consistently defend the organization's right to build at the planned site. President Obama, who is regarded widely as someone with a “gift for gab,” almost instantly found himself in hot water, proving the danger that anyone communicating in a crisis faces when he or she lets anyone “hijack” the facts.

The president did make an impassioned defense of the mosque, but he almost immediately found himself attacked by everyone from Palin to some families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. What he apparently didn't realize is that engaging in debate is something that is not only perilous but often foolhardy.

In my mind, from a communications standpoint, this issue was simple. The approval of any religious facility's construction is a local zoning issue -- period. The group constructing the facility secured all of those, and as mentioned, every permit needed for approval was secured by early August. Given that the federal government was in no way ever involved in the situation, the president missed a great opportunity to stay above the fray and let others fight whatever fight they had in mind.

President Obama's gaffe -- or at least that's what I perceive it as -- illustrates an age-old conflict in PR about responding in a crisis. We all know that sometimes they best thing to say is little or nothing at all. There will be many times in a crisis when you're better off letting the situation unfold to some natural conclusion, or at least the next phase, without issuing a public commentary. However, there also will be other times when complete silence is not the best stance to take, as it gives the appearance that a person or company is trying to avoid dealing with an obvious situation.

These conflicting situations are why crisis communications is so difficult. Simply put, we all seem to want a prefabricated template that we can consult following the emergence of any crisis -- sort of a “cheat sheet” that says when “X” happens, do “Y.” It would be fabulous if such a convention could be devised, but for better or worse, life's just not that simple. Trouble is, people seem to either lack the ability to communicate effectively or they let their decision-making process become fogged in a moment of crisis.

Letting this fog sweep in generally means you'll be dealing with a crisis much longer than if a more effective approach had been taken. To go back to the mosque debate, if President Obama simply and consistently said something to the effect of “While I understand the impassioned views of many on this issue, at its core the decision of whether or not to construct the mosque in Lower Manhattan is a local zoning issue. The group sponsoring its construction has obtained all the necessary approvals for its construction, which hopefully will bring this debate to a close.”

While nothing is certain, I'd be willing to wager a pretty penny that if the president had followed this strategy, he would have been able to get a month of his political life back. Instead, he spent valuable time letting others mop the floor with him and linking the mosque's construction to all sorts of other initiatives that had nothing to do with one another. Often, the most victory one can hope for following the emergence of a crisis is to minimize time spent on dealing with it.

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Cyrus Afzali is president of Astoria Communications, a New York City-based PR consultancy serving clients in financial/professional services, technology and real estate. Before opening his PR consultancy in 2004, Afzali worked at several New York agencies managing accounts for real estate, technology and legal clients. He started his career as a journalist, working as an editor and writer for nine years at outlets ranging from small, daily newspapers to CNN Financial News.

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