With founder Julian Assange under “mansion arrest” and the U.S. aiming to shut the site down, its new spokesman has one of the world’s worst PR assignments. Crisis-communications specialists offer seven key pieces of advice for Kristinn Hrafnsson.
WikiLeaks is having an image problem.
Throughout its ongoing release of up to 251,287 classified U.S. State Department cables, the website finds itself under heavy fire from governments around the world. Its leader, the Australian Julian Assange, is out on bond and under “ mansion arrest” in a 10-bedroom British estate, as a result of Swedish rape charges that stem from his conduct during sexual congress with two women. (Assange denies wrongdoing.)
Over the last 12 months, multiple WikiLeaks spokesmen have resigned. The group’s financial lines have been severed, and the U.S. government is building a case aimed at shutting its operations down.
Talk about a PR challenge.
The man in whose lap this problem lands is a blond-haired, blue-eyed former Icelandic investigative journalist named Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Once employed with Iceland’s broadcaster RUV, Hrafnsson began working with WikiLeaks back in April 2010 as it released “Collateral Murder,” the video that documented a 2007 U.S. military attack on civilians—and a Reuters photographer—in Baghdad. He was fired from RUV this past summer, and his name began popping up in press reports shortly thereafter. In the past two weeks, as his boss sat behind bars, Hrafnsson has emerged as the leading spokesman for the troubled organization.
How should he handle things? The Daily Beast reached out to a handful of crisis communications professionals, asking what advice they would give Hrafnsson if he was a paying client. Their counsel:
1. Look Like We Can Trust You
The most important first step WikiLeaks’ latest spokesman can take is to establish credibility with the public—and look like someone worth paying attention to. “We hear with our eyes, not with our ears, so what we see is what we believe,” says Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications. But if you’re to be trusted as a legitimate representative of the same organization that produced Assange—and not just some hired flack—”Looking like Andy Warhol is to your benefit,” says Levick.
WikiLeaks must ask itself, “Are we an extension of our founder’s personality, or an independent organization?”
2. Keep Your Nose Clean
Scandals can be quite distracting. Given the trouble his boss is in, and its effect on the WikiLeaks organization, Hrafnsson needs to take extra precautions to be sure he’s squeaky clean. The WikiLeaks’ spokesman should stay “plain vanilla,” says Jon Greer, managing director of Jon Greer Consulting LLC, a corporate communications firm. Otherwise, adds Levick, “one is an incident, but two is a pattern.”
3. Never Stray from Your Message
Given the legal pressure surrounding the sex charges, it’s imperative a spokesman stays on point: The organization has only released 1,862 of the 251,287 cables it has in its possession—not even 1 percent. “Focus people on the future and what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Greer, and “stay focused on your goals and objectives.” Hammer out a theme and stick close to the script, “rather than accept the media canard that ‘the more you tell us the better it is for you,’” says Eric Dezenhall, a Daily Beast contributor and CEO of the communications firm Dezenhall Resources. “Bullshit. Loose talk is good for the media, not the client.” On the day Assange was taken in, Hrafnsson seemed to stick to those guns. “It is not derailing us in any way,” he said earlier this month, arguing that Assange’s arrest wouldn’t affect any upcoming cable releases. “This is a turning tide and starting a trend that you can’t really stop unless you want to shut down the Internet.”
4. Embrace Disclosure to Negate Hypocrisy
WikiLeaks traffics in transparency. Yet as an organization, it masks its organizational structure, funding sources, and sometimes, its members’ real names. One source in the industry, who asked for anonymity, citing fear of client retaliation, says Hrafnsson has got to step out and explain WikiLeaks’ methodology. Levick offers a similar thought: “Are they just going to be an organization that demands transparency and yet simultaneously they themselves do not believe in transparency?” To alleviate these concerns, and others that they have something sinister to hide, Hrafnsson needs to disclose who is calling shots and who is paying the bills.
5. Don’t Let the Story Become About You
A good spokesman should never become central to the story. Birgitta Jonsdottir, herself a former spokeswoman during her time co-producing the “Collateral Murder” video, said in September, “The messenger should never become the message as has happened with Julian Assange.” She called for conservative spokesmen who were dull and free of controversy. If Hrafnsson were to mistakenly follow in his boss’ footsteps, Greer adds, “then hopefully they’ll have another person that they can drop in pretty quickly.”
6. Don’t Let the Media See Internal Strife
There are high-octane disagreements at every workplace. But within WikiLeaks, every public bout will be analyzed as a fault of Assange, or aired as publicly as dirty laundry. When former spokesman Daniel Schmitt (real name Daniel Domscheit-Berg) quit in a huff last fall, the high-profile affair was published in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, with accusations flying from both sides. When the sex charges came to light, anonymous representatives told The Daily Beast’s Philip Shenon the Assange’s “insistence on ‘staying in charge of everything’ was creating ‘a mess for everyone.’” The end of WikiLeaks may not be caused by external factors, says Levick, the communications specialist, but by the strife that happens internally.
7. Move the Image of WikiLeaks Beyond Its Founder
The public perception of WikiLeaks goes hand-in-hand with its founder, Julian Assange—a classic chicken/egg scenario. To get past this, Levick believes WikiLeaks has to ask itself, “Are we an extension of our founder’s personality, or an independent organization?” The good news for Hrafnsson: In an interview last month, he did say he was putting more emphasis on the leaks than the organization itself—or its founder. “This is not a one man organization,” he said. “We will continue our work.” Assange, for his part, was proud of the work WikiLeaks had done in his absence, calling it “robust.” After posting bail last week, he spoke on the steps of his benefactor’s Frontline Club, saying, “It does show the resilience of the organization, that it can withstand decapitation attacks.”
Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.