It had all the makings of great media story – an American soldier rescued from five years of terrorist captivity and returned home to his family and loved ones in a small Midwestern town. But as most Americans now know in the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the reality is not that simple. The feel-good story of the returning soldier morphed into a public relations nightmare.
The United States brokered a deal to exchange five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl’s safe return on May 31. The seemingly simple exchange became tainted by details of Bergdahl’s prior military service. A Pentagon investigation concluded that Bergdahl walked away from his post shortly before his capture, and further reports allege that as many as six soldiers were killed in the search for Bergdahl. Finally, many view the trade as a departure from America’s policy to not negotiate with terrorists.
In creating messages for high-stakes issues, communicators need to address both established principles and uncomfortable allegations. Despite the controversy of Bergdahl’s actions, he was an American soldier and prisoner of war, and as such, the military was honor-bound to bring him home. The military will still try him for any crimes he committed as a soldier, but can only do so if he survived his captivity. Despite the disrepute brought by his actions, Bergdahl deserves a fair trial separate from the conditions of his release from the Taliban. These factors are time-honored codes of the U.S. government and military. Communicators cannot speak to negative details in the absence of established principles, and vice versa.
The media maelstrom over Bergdahl’s release also highlights the fickleness of media and political pundits. Several politicians tweeted out initial congratulatory messages about Bergdahl’s release, only to delete them within days – or hours – after a growing tide of criticism. Stakeholders and audiences can change sides quickly and without warning. Their decisions can depend heavily on factors external to the issue itself, such as the political environment. Two lessons can be learned here: review all the facts before establishing a hardline position, and don’t expect public attitude to remain static. Public relations professionals must constantly gauge public opinion and adjust strategies accordingly.
While politically complex stories such as that of Bowe Bergdahl offer no simple responses, PR professionals can maintain inclusive, consistent messages and monitor public attitudes. These communication methods have the potential to shape public discourse as much as the story itself.
Maddie Brooks is a rising senior Mass Communication major with a minor in Public Health. She is a UD Social Media Ambassador and a member of PRSSA, Lori’s Hands, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter, @BlueHenMaddie and @Mbrooksinde.