Bush’s Initial Hurricane Katrina Response: A PR Blunder

george-bush-katrinaHurricane Katrina still stands as the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States and the deadliest since the Okeechobee hurricane of the late 1920s (Knabb, Rhome, & Brown, 2005). As such, the scrutiny of the government response, particularly at the federal level, to the hurricane was intense and widely proliferated in the mainstream media. As the leader of the federal government, President George W. Bush made numerous public statements regarding the exigencies of those who were directly impacted by Katrina and what the federal government’s relief plan would entail.

The following is a deconstruction of some of the president’s communications in the context of the social and political climate of the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Louisiana landfall. During the deconstruction, the messaging will be compared to the singular archived response the president issued after category four Hurricane Charley struck Florida the previous year, which also happened to be an election year, to better understand, again, the social and political underpinnings and the implications of power versus powerlessness in a situation when people are at the government’s mercy for relief and relief communication.

Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Two days earlier, Bush had already declared a federal state of emergency in Louisiana, which, according to the former president, had only been done one other time in history before 1999’s Hurricane Floyd (Bush, 2010). The president had set the stage, so to speak, for his concern about the severity of the inbound storm. Yet, the perceptions of citizens in heavily damaged Louisiana areas, the mainstream media, and the rest of the nation of Bush and the federal government took a deeply negative turn only days later (Liu, 2007). By the president’s own future admission, there were mistakes he made regarding the rapidity with which he made decisions and, particularly, how he handled and prioritized his addresses and appearances with respect to public relations. In his own words regarding the infamous photograph taken of him gazing down at the damage in New Orleans from Air Force One, Bush wrote the following:

I believe the decision not to land in New Orleans was correct. Emergency responders would have been called away from rescue efforts and that would have been wrong…. A better option would have been to stop at the airport in Baton Rouge…. Eighty miles north of the flood zone, I could have…. assured Katrina victims that their country stood with them.

Landing in Baton Rouge would not have saved any lives. Its benefit would have been good public relations. But public relations matter when you are president, particularly when people are hurting. (Bush, 2010, p. 318)

Bush said the photograph made him appear “detached from the suffering on the ground,” (Bush, 2010, p. 318). One would have to agree with the former president. When the photograph was released to the media, Bush’s compassion was immediately called into question (Stolberg, 2006).

Due to bad intelligence received from Brigadier General Matthew Broderick on the existence of levee breaches (Campbell A., Whitehead J., & Finkelstein S., 2009), Bush did not immediately understand the severity of the New Orleans situation until day two of the disaster, at which point he flew from San Diego to Crawford, Texas, to “pack up for the capitol,” (Bush, 2010, p. 317). This deconstruction is focusing on major implications of President Bush’s communications following the hurricane’s landfall in New Orleans. The first major speech was delivered from the Rose Garden on August 31, day three, at The White House in Washington, D.C., after Bush had flown from Crawford, Texas, to Washington on Air Force One, where the aforementioned photo was taken mid-flight.

When Bush stepped up to the podium at 5:11 p.m., the nation had already been waiting since news of the disaster’s effects broke late on August 29. It is important to understand the condition and perception of the American people who had heard nothing substantive from their leader. The public acknowledgment Bush had made of the storm’s landfall and damage came by way of a brief, four-paragraph mention in his August 30 V-J Day speech in San Diego. The nation did not hear from the president again until the following day after 5:00 p.m. This was the first focused statement Bush made regarding the devastation Katrina caused (The White House, 2005, August 31). Bush’s tone during the speech was somber, and he attempted to turn a few hopeful phrases at the end of the speech. There were two important word choices to note. First, his use of the word “folks” five times seemed to imply typical persons. Bush attempts to use this word in order to seem relatable and candid with the people he is trying to address and, also, to liken those working to mitigate disaster effects to those being affected. Second, the word choice he made for the end of his speech seems problematic:

The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to succeed. Right now the days seem awfully dark for those affected — I understand that. But I’m confident that, with time, you can get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it.

The country stands with you. We’ll do all in our power to help you. May God bless you. (The White House, 2005, August 31)

Note, throughout the portions of his speech, including his final paragraph, when discussing the challenge of relief and the potential for victory, Bush uses the term “we” or “we’re.” However, when it comes to the portion where he talks about the act of getting lives “back in order,” he shifts the responsibility to the victims and the federal government to a secondary helping role. The president also indicates he understands the situation the people in affected areas are going through when he has neither set foot on the ground nor spoken directly with any person grossly impacted by the storm. The implication here is a powerful government taking pity on citizens, not treating them as equals in a dire situation, which one could assume was his intent based on his use of the word “folks.” Bush assures everyone America will be stronger for the hurricane and recovery effort when all is said and done. Again, it is easy to deliver a message of positivity from a position of power.

Compare Bush’s initial Katrina reaction to the timing of his public statement and in-person visit to damaged sites from Hurricane Charley the previous year; one has a very different perception of Bush. He was on the ground in Punta Gorda, Florida, when he delivered his message to the nation. During that address, Bush took questions from the press. He said it is the “government’s job to help people rebuild their lives,” which is a very different sentiment than that of him deflecting government responsibility post-Katrina (The White House, 2004). This provides a concrete, contextual difference from the far-removed image of him he created gazing down from a luxury airplane and speaking initially from the safe and serene White House Rose Garden. Bush did not go to New Orleans to address the nation until four days after the hurricane made landfall in Louisiana.

According to Brooke Fisher Liu of American University, “The most effective and visible way for presidents to communicate with the media and the public during crises is through speeches,” (Liu, 2007, p. 41). However, Liu goes on to say the effectiveness of presidential speeches is ultimately determined by several factors, including media interpretation and events surrounding presidential speeches (Liu, 2007). In Bush’s case, the media tended not to be on his side. The definition of events surrounding speeches can be broadened to include the environment and activities of the individual giving the speech. In the case of Katrina, Bush did not take into consideration how his location and behaviors influenced what he was trying to say, which ultimately lead to muddy messages.

A further implication of Bush, thanks to the manner in which he delivered his first post-Katrina speech, was he was unorganized and detached. After reviewing archived video footage, the president stumbled through several awkwardly constructed paragraphs, making him appear a trifle incompetent and ill prepared despite the fact that he was reading from a prepared statement. Compare that to footage of Bush on the ground, speaking off-the-cuff after Hurricane Charley, or even his now-famous shouts through a bullhorn from ground zero after 9/11, and one, again, has a very different image of a president who had before clearly shown his passion and involvement after natural or man-made disasters.

A final contributor to the public interpretation of Bush’s Hurricane Katrina response in comparison with his Hurricane Charley response was Charley came during an election year while Katrina came after Bush had already been re-elected (The White House, 2004). People could have interpreted this at the time as a president who was comfortable and complacent and no longer felt the need to leap into action to impress the citizenry. Bush later fully disclosed his complete experience with Hurricane Katrina relief in his memoir Decision Points. However, his public relations during the time of the government’s response appeared detached, uncaring and ill prepared due to his location, word choice, and overall sentiment in his speeches. Crises are not a time for mitigating blame – at least not initially. They are a time for action and clear communication. More transparency and full disclosure of the details of the government’s recovery effort would have aided in Bush’s accurate delivery of his core messages.

 

References

Bush, G. W. (2010). Decision points. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

Campbell A., Whitehead J., & Finkelstein S. (2009, February). Why good leaders make bad decisions. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2009/02/why-good-leaders-make-bad-decisions/

Knabb, R. D., Rhome, J.R., & Brown, D. P. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2005). Tropical cyclone report Hurricane Katrina (TCR-AL122005). Miami, FL: National Hurricane Center.

Liu, B. F. (2007). President Bush’s major post-Katrina speeches: Enhancing image repair discourse theory applied to the public sector. Public Relations Review, 33(1), 40-48. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2006.11.003

Stolberg, S. G. (2006, August 28). Year after Katrina, Bush still fights for 9/11 image. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/28/us/nationalspecial/28bush.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2005, August 30). President commemorates 60th anniversary of V-J Day [Press release]. Retrieved from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050830-1.html

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2005, August 31). President outlines Hurricane Katrina relief efforts [Press release]. Retrieved from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050831-3.html

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2005, September 2). President remarks on hurricane recovery efforts [Press release]. Retrieved from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/09/20050902-8.html

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2004). President tours hurricane damage [Press release]. Retrieved from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040815.html

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