American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt
Weber Shandwick chairman Jack Leslie spoke at a breakfast briefing on June 17 (2002) at the Marriott Hotel about crisis management and public relations in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Leslie said that a "sense of normalcy" was difficult to achieve in an age of instant communication where nothing stays the same for very long. He added that while many Americans now feel vulnerable, they are experiencing the kind of fear people in other parts of the world experience on a daily basis. A recent poll indicated that 63 percent of Americans still feel very shaken about their personal safety.
In the 1980s, after working on political campaigns for US presidential candidates, Leslie worked in Latin America on campaigns promoting democratic political development. The international political scene, he said, was transformed by the advance of modern communications in many parts of the world. When TV became a part of every household, for example, candidates in US elections were able to bypass the traditional political parties and speak directly to voters. Leslie contended that there has, consequently, been a decline in the power of political parties, while the power of the individual voter has increased.
The rise of "business media," meanwhile, added urgency to such issues as shareholder rights and employee rights. Today, every business leader is faced with the need to manage communications, Leslie said, adding that there is a new appreciation of what PR is all about: working with corporate leaders to understand their business objectives.
Summarizing lessons he has learned over the years, Leslie said that "whoever controls dialogue wins." Second, he said, speed is everything in the corporate world. Third, he stressed the importance of being aware of a desired outcome, and fourth, of "moving the movable," in the sense of identifying people who might change their minds rather than going for a hard sell.
Most importantly, research must drive any strategy. "Pre-search," as Leslie called it, is crucial for understanding where you want to go. The best way to deal with crisis, he added, was through communication, noting that the first 24 hours were vital to the outcome of any crisis.
Two of Leslie’s clients were especially hard-hit by September 11: one was the Marriott Hotel located between the twin towers; the other was American Airlines.
Weber Shandwick was guided these clients throughout the crisis period, emphasizing the importance of maintaining credibility. "Facts must be distributed quickly," he said. "Truth is always the best weapon, even if it’s painful."
Companies, as well as countries, need to protect their reputations and maintain a strong marketing presence, Leslie concluded. Although Egypt has a good textile-cotton industry, this is not successfully marketed in the United States, he said. As for the American public’s view of Islam and Arabs in general, he said that moderate voices had to be given greater exposure. "The only way for Americans and the Arab world to understand each other," he said, "is through meaningful dialogue that creates understanding."
In the question and answer session that followed, Leslie’s response to a question about whether Arab and Muslim organizations should to try to set up a TV channel in the United States to explain Islam to the American public, Leslie advised that the "clutter" existing now on American TV would be an obstacle in reaching a significant viewing audience. He said that the Arab world would be better off developing a PR program in the US to seek time on major networks in order to address misperceptions.
The briefing, organized under the auspices of AmCham Egypt’s Marketing Committee, was attended by around 80 guests.
Jack Leslie is the Chairman of Weber Shandwick, the world’s largest public relations firm, with more than 3,000 professionals in 60 offices around the globe. Mr. Leslie is a veteran communications strategist; he has been the architect of some of the most visible communications campaigns of the last two decades, as well as serving as a high-level strategist for nationwide political campaigns on three continents. Mr. Leslie specializes in helping prominent corporations and public institutions to transform public attitudes rapidly on divisive, high profile issues. Political and business leaders have sought his counsel during several crises, and he has advised companies and trade groups during public policy battles ranging from health care reform to telecommunications reform to tax reform.