PR Tips for Mohammed Al-Sahhaf

Professionals offer advice to Iraq’s unhinged information minister.

If there’s anyone who could use a little professional advice today, it’s Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. Even granting that the collapse of Saddam’s regime is hard to put a positive spin on—hard, that is, if you speak for Saddam’s regime—al-Sahhaf is making a serious hash of it. Here’s a sampler of recent al-Sahhaf statements:

OnApril 5, CNN and Al Jazeera aired footage shot by an Associated Press cameraman that showed U.S. troops defeating a Republican Guard unit just outside Baghdad. Asked about it, al-Sahhaf said, “These images are not the suburbs of Baghdad. … From what I glimpsed, these gardens with rows of palm trees on the side, which you saw in the images, are located in the south of Abu Ghreib, where we have surrounded the Americans and British.”

On April 6, after coalition forces seized Baghdad’s Saddam Airport, renamed it Baghdad International Airport, started flying planes in, and ventured into Baghdad itself, the Miami Herald quoted al-Sahhaf saying, “We butchered the force present at the airport.”

On April 7, after U.S. troops penetrated central Baghdad and stormed Saddam’s Republican Palace, the Washington Post quoted al-Sahhaf saying, “There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad at all. … We besieged them and we killed most of them.”

Obviously, al-Sahhaf has created himself a big credibility problem. Chatterbox, lacking personal experience in the public relations field, asked several practitioners to offer pointers. Their comments follow.

John Buckley was Bob Dole’s spokesman during the 1996 presidential campaign and is now executive vice president for corporate communications at AOL. Buckley says he regards al-Sahhaf “with nothing but admiration, because when you’re going down, style counts. … Why try to get credible at this late date?” Buckley adds, “He does have something I’m a little jealous of, which is the ability to hold a press briefing with a gun on his hip.”

Lanny Davis wasspecial counsel to the Clinton White House, where he dealt with various scandals, and is now a corporate crisis lawyer at Patton, Boggs. “In my experience, you can only do so much with bad facts,” Davis says. When al-Sahhaf challenged reporters to go to Saddam Airport and see for themselves whether the United States had taken it, it was “the functional equivalent of me and [White House press secretary] Mike McCurry saying the White House coffees had nothing to do with money.”

Mike McCurry was Bill Clinton’s press secretary and is now a communications consultant in Washington. “The problem with this guy is that there’s going to be an M-1 tank that shows up in the background of his pictures, and it sounds like sooner rather than later.” He adds, “I’m sure the poor guy has to do this because someone’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t. At least I never had that problem.”

Bobby Zarem is a famous entertainment-industry press agent in New York. At first, he says, “I didn’t know if it was real or not, so I didn’t make a judgment about it.” Now that he’s satisfied U.S. forces really are winning, he doesn’t want to comment on al-Sahhaf. “I want them all killed,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is listening or cares.”

Howard Rubenstein is the founder of Rubenstein Associates, a powerful New York public relations firm. “Mr. Rubenstein says he doesn’t care to comment,” his assistant informs Chatterbox.

Leslie Dach is vice chairman of Edelman Public Relations and helped the Clinton administration handle the press on the war in Kosovo. “I think he may be past the point of no return,” Dach says. “All the best spin is based on a slim foundation of fact. Spin is about the interpretation of fact. But people have to agree on the fact, and then you’re trying to get them to put a different interpretation on it. He forgot the basics.” On the other hand, “He probably understands what’s expected of him in terms of client service.”

Maurie Perl is Conde Nast’s senior vice president for corporate relations. “I’m going to have to take a pass on this one,” she says, adding that she’s on deadline with something else.

Frank Mankiewicz is vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and previously served as press secretary for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. “I would advise him to go to the only remaining store in Iraq and buy himself a white flag,” Mankiewicz says. “It will stand him in good stead.” In a more serious vein, Mankiewicz says, “I think this guy is playing on the fact that there are really millions of people who just don’t believe the U.S. under any circumstances.” Al-Sahhaf resonates with people on the Arab street, Mankiewicz says, “even as they know with sort of half a mind that it ain’t so.”