The power of conspiracy theory in public relations and why the president’s messaging is dead on point

May 5, 2011

For the Obama administration, yesterday was its finest moment of messaging. The decision to not release images of Osama bin Laden’s corpse is fraught with peril during an age when conspiracy theorists can command the discourse even in the face of fact and evidence.

I have written extensively about the power of conspiracy theories throughout this blog, and how they can overwhelm reason and rationale, regardless of whether the topic is alien bodies at Roswell, stolen elections in Florida, or presidents born on foreign soil.

But yesterday, the administration took great strides in muting the conspirators and dulling the inevitable stories they will seek to peddle in the years to come.

By standing in the light and deciding not to release the photos, the Obama administration falls in line with a long-held American tradition of respecting the enemy, even during the giddy heights of victory. In World War II, we, as a people, allowed Japan to surrender with honor, allowing them to hold onto an emperor and a ravaged sense of national self. In doing so, we gained a staunch and reliable ally for the ages.

In acting with similar civility, President Obama steps forward on the international stage to demonstrate the grace and valor of the American legacy. And the language used is no less direct and powerful.

“There is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden,” the president told 60 Minutes. “But we don’t need to spike the football.” He went onto explain that gloating “is not who we are” and “the fact of the matter is you will not see Osama bin Laden walking this earth again.”

How many times when working with corporate clients, our nation’s business leaders, do we urge them to use similar direct and memorable language? How often do we recommend to not only do what’s right, but to express it simply, powerfully, in a way that sears the public consciousness and forever rights a wrong, extinguishes a lie, or quiets the conspiracy theorists?

And how often does the corporate process deny our best advice? Clients overruling our better judgment, replacing the language of strength and certainty with shaded nuance, only to open new doors to questions and uncertainty?

No doubt, the theorists will conspire about the death of Osama Bin Laden, replacing truth with lies and deceptions. But when they do, for generations to come, our president’s words will ring true, reminding the world that justice was immutably served, a fact never to be forgotten or rewritten by less noble minds. Such is the power of the message, an art we all share as public relations professionals.

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