Defining moments are ridiculously difficult to predict. For example, President Bush attempted to use ‘defining moment’ rhetoric to pressure the U.N. Security Council to pass resolution 1441, calling for Iraq to disarm what later was found to be a non-existent weapons program (CNN, 2003). Later, President Bush attempted to define a ‘defining moment’ for the Iraqi government in their push to rid Basra of militants (Myers, 2008). Of course, the attempts to define the defining moments of a presidency occur on both sides of the aisle. After the killing of Bin Laden, Democrats rushed to a ‘defining moment’ narrative for Obama’s presidency (Warren, 2011). Despite the efforts of political public relations machines, defining moments remain elusive, precisely because they require the passage of time and the resulting perspective that goes with it, and because they must hold symbolic meaning for larger historical narratives. However, most public relations functions continue to use their skills in an attempt to define moments for those they represent, based on the antiquated idea that media has powerful effects on a mass audience, but many do not consider the meaning-making capability of individual audience members.
On May 1, 2003, the American public was greeted with the sight of President Bush, heroically landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, fully bedecked in a flight suit, where hours later, under a banner reading ‘Mission Accomplished’, President Bush would announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq (Bash, 2003). While President Bush choose his words very carefully, the banner betrayed the government’s interest in staging a ‘defining moment’ in the U.S. public sphere. Of course, the pseudo-event did become a defining moment, just not in the way it was intended. Rather than ‘mission-accomplished’ becoming a symbol of American military dominance and a capable administration, it became a symbol of an administration out of touch with the reality on the ground in Iraq, and as such, cast doubts on the administration’s ability to win the peace.
Bush staffer’s would later argue that message was mangled, that the press got the meaning wrong, and that the banner was not intended to convey the end of the war, rather the end of a successful deployment of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Bradley, 2011). However, their objections ring hollow, and the event serves to illustrate a public relations function that continues to operate using the notion of the media as “a great keyboard on which the government can play” (Time, 1933). Shafritz, Russell, and Borick (2011) support the idea that governments continue to use the mass media as a device to influence the public sphere. However, the notion of a mass society easily influenced by a powerful mass media, has largely been refuted in research on media effects (McQuail, 2010). An alternative view of the communication process, is the reception model, which has focused communication research on the role of the individual in the social construction of meaning (McQuail, 2010).
President Bush and the communications staff of the Bush administration sought to shape public perception of the war effort by suggesting that combat operations were successful and complete. The staff chose powerful symbols of American military might, an aircraft carrier, fighter jets, and U.S sailors. In addition, the staff sought to portray President Bush as an accomplished military leader, having the President fly onto the aircraft carrier on a Navy jet, despite the aircraft carrier being within helicopter range. While it remains unclear whether the ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign was intentionally placed behind President Bush, it is difficult to believe the sign escaped the attention of the White House communications staff. However, history demonstrates that the clearly orchestrated pseudo-event did not shape public perception in the way in which it was intended.
Rather, the American public created an altogether different meaning resulting from the public relations disaster. ‘Mission Accomplished’ was not only widely criticized in the press as premature (Andersen, 2007; Bash, 2003; Bradley, 2011), but also widely parodied (Ferell, 2010; The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 2003). In addition, the phrase became an Internet meme symbolizing incompetence, failure, or disingenuousness (quickmeme, 2012; Urban Dictionary, 2012). The picture that emerges from the widespread use of ‘Mission Accomplished’ demonstrates an altogether different ‘defining moment’ than the one envisioned by the Bush administration.
Therefore, public administrators should consider carefully whether to attempt to stage ‘defining moments’ of their own, for public perception is not so easily shaped. Rather, when framing debates in the public sphere, consideration should be made how pseudo-events will play in the larger context of the public debate. While the mass media is an important tool for public relations, the idea that the mass media exerts a powerful influence over public perception has been refuted in studies of media effects. Instead, public relations staff should consider the meaning-making capability of individual audience members and how the symbols that are used support existing narratives in the public sphere.
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Bash, D. (2003, October 29, 2012). White House pressed on ‘mission accomplished’ sign Retrieved August 15, 2012, 2012, from http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/10/28/mission.accomplished/
Bradley, T. (2011, September 18, 2011). Press Missed ‘Mission Accomplished’ Meaning, Says Bush Staffer Retrieved August 15,, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/09/press-missed-mission-accomplished-meaning-says-bush-staffer/
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The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Producer). (2003, August 15, 2012). The “Sign” Controversy. Retrieved from http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-29-2003/the–sign–controversy
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Urban Dictionary. (2012). mission accomplished Retrieved August 16, 2012, 2012, from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mission+accomplished
Warren, J. (2011, May 5, 2011). Obama, Osama, and the Problem With Defining Moments Retrieved August 15,, 2012, from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/obama-osama-and-the-problem-with-defining-moments/238394/