A public relations disaster


For a media-savvy administration that has perfected the art of rapid response and spin doctoring, the handling of Dick Cheney’s hunting accident has been a public-relations disaster, experts say.

For five days, the Bush administration let the Feb. 11 shooting incident become the brunt of blogosphere banter, fodder for late-night TV comedians, and the subject of mounting political grumbling against a White House that reluctantly shares information with the public.

The vice president only broke his silence with a televised interview Wednesday, saying the shooting accident made for “one of the worst days in my life” and accepting full responsibility.

“I’m the one who pulled the trigger and shot my friend,” Cheney said. He stressed he felt that no blame should fall on wealthy Texas investor Harry Whittington, his hunting buddy who was injured in the accident, and remains hospitalized.

Cheney also explained his silence, saying he decided in discussions with Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, to give the information Sunday to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. He said he still believes that was sufficient.

Cheney said Armstrong suggested this approach, and he agreed because she was the owner of the property. Armstrong was formerly director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department overseeing wild-game issues in Texas and so is an expert on hunting accidents, and someone who understands hunting, Cheney said.

“I thought it was the right call,” Cheney said. “I still do. I think the accuracy was enormously important.”

Cheney’s agreement to the Fox interview came as public-relations experts _ including some who served Republican administrations _ said the vice president had violated one of their basic tenets by taking no action to counteract the bad publicity.

Even former Republican presidential press secretaries Marlin Fitzwater and Ari Fleischer joined in the criticism of how Cheney handled the fallout from the accident. Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, told the magazine Editor & Publisher that he was “appalled” at the administration’s response to the incident, and Fleischer, the current President Bush’s first press secretary, said information should have been released earlier.

What went wrong? “Just about everything, if you want a candid answer,” said David Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based public-relations firm that advises politicians and companies.

He said the imbroglio could have been dampened earlier if only Cheney had called a news conference to make a public statement outside the Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital where Cheney visited Whittington on Sunday.

“Letting it spiral out of control is a public-relations nightmare,” Johnson said. “They should have done damage control. For an administration known for its rapid responses and e-mails, this one looks like they were tone deaf.”

There were signs Wednesday that the incident was taking on political dimensions as Democrats who were restrained on the matter earlier in the week began talking openly about it.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said the secrecy surrounding the shooting was part of a “larger pattern of the above-the-law, bunker mentality that the Bush administration has embraced” involving the leak of information that exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame and the withholding of information on a White House energy task force that Cheney directed.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada urged the vice president to call a press conference to clear the air, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said she found the administration’s silence “troubling.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)