Sunday, July 11, 2004


The Senate report on intelligence failures in Iraq partially blamed "groupthink" for an inability to make correct assessments about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

Over the years, I've written about groupthink. It was a topic in my first book 10 years ago and the case then was Kennedy White House failures while invading Cuba.

Groupthink should be of profound concern to PR practitioners. It is at the root of many poor and inappropriate communications.

Essentially, a group falls over time into an assumption pattern that dictates how it assesses events and makes decisions. Saddam Hussein had used WMD against the Kurds and once upon a time was known to be assembling equipment for nuclear weapons. Even though it was 10 years past, it was easy to believe he had not changed his stripes. Inspections proceeded on that assumption. When inspectors could not find weapons before the war, it was because Saddam was moving or hiding them. When CIA analysts talked to defectors, comments about WMD bolstered their estimates of the number Saddam had.

I am not trying to absolve the Bush Administration but nearly everyone in Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House and Western Europe believed Hussein possessed WMD. The question was how many and whether he posed an imminent threat. The idea that he might not have them was deemed incredible. In other words, the Western World fell into groupthink.

This can happen to companies too -- and does. I have been in situations where we knew the answer. There was no question. The problem was that it wasn't the answer. Psychologists have warned for years that someone in a group needs to question assumptions thoroughly. It cannot be just anyone. Secretary of State Colin Powell held out for several months before he subscribed to the WMD thesis. Colin Powell, however, did not have the president's ear on the issue of WMD. It was a matter of intelligence agencies and the White House convincing an obstinate holdout to get with the program.

So who should tell a CEO he might be dead wrong and his assumptions incorrect? In communications, PR counselors should have the courage to speak up and if they don't, they shouldn't be in the job. Even so, that doesn't mean that counselors will have the CEO's ear or that they can break through groupthink. The fact is that most of the time they don't and they can't. Still we should try.


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