Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Exhibit A 

I have not written about Abu Ghraib because events were too much in the news. There was no need to pile on and enough was being said. But, Abu Ghraib is a textbook case of the power of credibility and what happens when one loses it.

The US had a claim on a position in Iraq before the incidents occurred. The position was that freedom and democracy would make the country better for Iraqis. Since the photos, credibility for that claim has been jeopardized and, some say, lost. I'm not taking a position one way or the other on that. But what intrigued me is how quickly everyone saw the damage to the US' credibility. It was instantaneous.

We can talk measurement all we want in PR, but one incident like Abu Ghraib can offset all the placements and good work a country or a company has done. That is why "reputation management," a term I dislike, is important. In fact, a country or firm cannot manage reputation. One guards reputation the best one can, but inevitably things happen. At Abu Ghraib, the worst possible "thing" happened. And there will be a long period, maybe years or decades, before balance returns.

The problem seems to have started with the US entering a situation in which the people didn't like their old leader but don't like their new one either. It is also not clear that Iraqis are ready for a leader. They might prefer to fight with one another. We don't know whether a middle will emerge that will seek compromise and civility rather than terror and warfare.

But what we do know is that Iraq was a tarbaby for the reputation of the US. The US dared to touch it and the tar is smearing the honor of its soldiers and citizens. Credibility is precious: Trust in another is easily lost. In Iraq, the US has learned that lesson bitterly.


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