PARIS: Communication, leadership pressures of instant news


What is the effect of immediate breaking news and resultant media and public pressures on leaders, their decisions and action?

How do you communicate to balance providing a sense of trust, security and retribution with the time to reflect, consult and weigh up crucial decisions?

We saw the carnage, heard the explosions of the Paris killings on smartphones before some Parisians without them or offline knew what was unfolding in their city.

There has been wall-to-wall breaking news and analysis as well as an outpouring of governmental and personal revulsion, outrage and grief often leading to demands for “scorched earth” style retribution.

Le Tricolore is overlaid on buildings and profile pictures, candles are lit and bouquets amass at the killing sites. As the world grieves for Paris, many voices are asking: what about the killings and victims elsewhere? IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre recorded a total of 1,086 ISIS attacks worldwide between 1 July and 30 September — and the average daily number of attacks jumped to 11.8 from 8.3 in the preceding quarter. Statistics

Everyone is waiting to hear what Hollande, Merkel, Obama and Cameron will say – and more importantly what they will do, NOW. Do not allow any more Muslims into your countries, get a UN mandate for an allied force to use intelligence and military might to flatten ISIS once and for all, are some of the demands and advice.

As Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other military “victories” have highlighted, once you have destroyed and returned to your home country base, what is left behind? How do you start the fight, whom do you destroy and how and when do you stop? Without leadership, capacity, a functioning government and society, the after could sometimes be worse than the before for those who have to live there. This is not a pacifist or do-nothing argument.

An acknowledgement that we simply do not know what we do not know, that we do not understand or do not have enough information is often seen as vacillation, indecision and spinelessness.

In the New York Book Review in August 2015 an anonymous author who has wide and deep knowledge of the Middle East documents the incredibly complex, irrational, illogical rise and progression of ISIS founded by Ahmad Fadhil—later known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed in a US airstrike in 2006. Mystery of ISIS

The author concludes: “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough— even in hindsight — to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

In World War I and II commanders had to wait for dispatches from the frontline and newspapers and radio would reflect on what happened last week, last month. When the US invaded Iraq, we watched television bulletins to find out what was happening. Footage and exclusive interviews from embedded or frontline journalists reached us via editorial judgment, selection and moderated channels. Today you surf where you want for free-flow news from any person with any mobile device anywhere in the world.

With instant news comes immediate public and media pressure to pronounce and to act. There is the reality of political polls, positioning, even posturing, heightened in the run-up to an election.  Any delay or vacuum left by a leader or government is filled with rumours, opinions, causes and campaigns. How much time and space is there for a leader in the “free” world to consider the options, the action, the consequences, both intended and especially unintended?

This highlights the difficulties faced by politicians and their communicators in a smartphone world.  The jury is out on Hollande, Merkel, Cameron and Obama in the current turbulence.  After 9/11 the George Bush approach was about “Smoke em out and weapons of mass destruction”.  The pressures of immediacy led to wrong decisions made as a result of hubris and patriotic pride, stoking anti-American and -West sentiments.

The Paris attack highlights the difficulty of reconciling often conflicting demands. There is no margin for error but also no clear guidelines on how to react and proceed.  Actions require not only cool-head reasoning but a huge dollop of luck and the end result will please some and polarise others.

If you get it wrong, history will remember you for that – Bush and Tony Blair are examples. Obama was lucky when the US intelligence on Bin Laden proved to be correct.  If the US had killed innocent people, that would have defined Obama’s legacy. 

South Africans have first-hand knowledge of the horror of terrorism – perpetrated by liberation movements now governing, right wing groups and PAGAD. Emergency, medical and security services knew the drill.  Is South Africa ready for a repeat at some point? Are our contingency plans in place and will well-functioning organs of state and the security cluster present the president with the expertise, experience and capacity to respond and execute the plan of choice or necessity? Pressure and crisis usually show up – too late – any cracks in the system.

What is the effect of news immediacy on leadership, decisions and action – especially in a crisis like Paris?

Pieter Cronjé was communication director for the Independent Electoral Commission in the 1994 election, later for the City of Cape Town and is now an independent consultant.