Public Relations Disaster for Martelly
Talk the talk
After cutting his medical visit to the United States a few days short, President Martelly returned to Haiti to face the political-judicial crisis that spiraled out of control after he left the country. After denying any involvement in “Affaire Belizaire,” the president judged the country needed a dose of spirituality and asked for a seven-day prayer from all religious leaders in the country. To many people, it was incomprehensible that the president was so humble, reasonable and scripted. Some say he was a different man while others think he was anesthetic or floating on some cloud sitting on pain killers. I, like all of you, listened intently with my draw touching my chest. The inconsistencies and incoherence in the president’s speech were stunning. It was as it he flew out of the country one man and came back another.
Let’s put his communication strategy under the microscope.
The first thing I noticed was how long it took the president to break his silence. That was mistake one. Martelly’s communication team needed to be in crisis management mode and there are specific strategies to employ when facing such a huge crisis. It is difficult for anyone to believe that the president knew nothing about the incident and the airport, partly because of the ill-advised rhetoric and the controversial statements he made on a regular basis, threatening legislators. However, the president’s team failed to control the narrative by staying silent for so long. Instead he let lawmakers define the crisis on their own term and they even broadened the definitions of the incident to call it kidnapping, dictatorship, supreme leader and all kinds of trigger words that evoked a not so distant, unpleasant memories. Immediacy and empathy are key in crisis situations. The president would have been more believable had he dispatched his communication team to refute any accusations or allegations leveled against him and answer any questions. That would help him control the message of legislators and do so redefining of his own.
In his speech, the president didn’t seem to mind that the Constitution and Supreme Law of the land was raped, which was mistake two. Martelly would have scored many points if he denounced in the strongest of term the reprehensible acts. Of course that would have meant feeding some of his minions and foot soldiers to angry parliament hyenas seeking reprisals. However, doing that would automatically dispel the Duvalierism association, at least to his fans. In addition, it would show that he respect the law and understood what a grave incident it was. It could even reassure some people who were worried about his state of mind. Instead, he addressed the conflict or crisis between the executive and legislative branches, which itself may be perceived as an admission of guilt and signal indifference toward the real problem: slaughtering of the Constitution and abuse of authority.
Mistake three occurred because the president showed no empathy towards the person of Arnel Belizaire during his much-anticipated speech. One of Martelly’s first move should have been a phone call to Deputy Belizaire acknowledging his ordeals with a promise to get to the bottom of it and find the culprits. I don’t even think the president mentioned the deputy’s name. Sympathizing with the victims and their loved ones is considered a great PR strategy. They often carry your message and concerns to the media during interviews. Imagine Belizaire himself telling everyone the president called him from jail. A softer, more concerned image of the president would have emerged ahead of his speech. A call to the Deputies wife would have paid dividends as well.
After such a major infraction, President Martelly needed to offer his unwavering support to the legislative body in its pursuit of justice. This omission amounted to mistake four. Acknowledging the autonomy and power of the parliament as a constitutional institution would stop a lot of rumors from settling deep in the consciousness of the population. Without parliament to ensure checks and balances, democracy is in peril. Pledging to help parliamentarians regain their dignity and respect would win a lot of support from the public and perhaps even among lawmakers.
One of Martelly’s biggest faux pas was his nonchalant attitude toward his government, thus mistake five. His denying responsibility implied that people in his government order such a huge operation without his knowledge, which in my view is a bigger problem. As such, It meant that the president could not control his own staff, let alone the country. Haitians could wake up one day and find a new president in the National Palace, a military roaming the streets imposing a full-blown dictatorship and the president would know nothing about it. One can only expect and president who act and talk like the king of the jungle would be furious to find out people he trusted and chose to help him lead the country less than a week ago took such unprecedented actions that undermined his authority and made him look so weak. Priority one would be to probe the government and help the legislative brand identify perpetrators, proving to everyone he was set up. That would restore Martelly’s credibility and paint him as a victim, rather than the unstable, coward the parliament made him out to be.
A communication team should know how to manage such situations. If in fact, like the president said, he knew nothing of all this, everyone else his lying in this elaborate scheme and conspiracy design to destroy him. Even worse, it may prove that Haiti is far from any road to meaningful change.
Walk the walk