No thinking person in the west can help but be apalled by the situation in Syria. Why then have our governments been so slow to act? Of course we are deeply concerned about becoming mired in another Iraq or Afghanistan — or for the US, another Vietnam. Before anyone can lead their country into battle, they need to ensure that the nation’s population has their back. So the PR battle is usually the first front. Barack Obama is hesitating about Syria, not because he doesn’t believe that Assad has been a fiend to his own citizens, but because the American people are reluctant to finance another military undertaking in the Middle East… and with good cause! The price of American intervention in recent years has been staggering.
There is nothing new in this. Whether it was Roosevelt’s secret negotiations to bring America into World War II or even Hitler’s frightening propaganda machine, public opinion is critical to any military outcome.
This is particularly true in civil wars. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address fired the imagination of Union soldiers, the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech is a vivid example of the way in which rhetoric – words – helped to shape public opinion and alter the course of the civil rights movement.
For all of us in the practice of public relations this is a timely reminder that our work and the power of words can be a force for much good as well as evil. It imposes an enormous responsibility.