Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Boston Bombings - What We Can Learn From President Obama's Speech

On Monday, April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of  the Boston Marathon at around 2.45pm in Massachusetts, United States, leaving three dead, including eight-year-old Martin Richard, who it is believed, attended the event to watch his father cross the finish line. According to updated CNN media reports about 180 suffered injuries of varying severity.

In the aftermath of the tragic event, reports of compassion, courage and sacrifice were given. We heard about exhausted runners heading to hospitals to donate blood, first responders rushing to the scene to save lives and spectators eager to help in any way they could. As is evident to viewers around the world, Americans tend to be united in grief and compassion following horribly, tragic events such as this one. People wanted answers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was reportedly directed to investigate and release their findings.

According to further reports, President Obama considered the bombings an "act of terrorism" and described them as "heinous" and "cowardly", summing up what I am certain must have been echoed by millions.

In moments of terror, crises, disasters and other negative events, it is often very difficult for leaders to convey the right message. They are often  required to appear authoritative  but must tamper indignation, anger  or disbelief with the message of hope and compassion. The leaders must be able to feel the 'pulse' of the nation, but should remain sensitive to those who have suffered great losses.

Indeed, their speeches which would require a strategic interplay of good communications and effective PR, should be issued almost immediately the crisis breaks. No one wants a leader who appears to fall apart at the seams, or one whose message is so ambiguous and unhelpful that it elicits anger rather than reassurance. No easy feat but such a skill has to be learned and honed. 

During the week 15th–21st April, the manhunt for the two suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, continued with reports  being aired over local and international news channels. It culminated in the death of the elder brother, Tamerlan, during a police shootout; the subsequent unprecedented shutdown of Boston; and on the night of Friday,19th April, the capture and hospitalisation of the younger brother, Dzhokhar, - illustrating the efficiency of the FBI and dogged determination of law enforcement agencies.

However, the focus of this post is on President Obama's first speech, delivered a few hours after the bomb blasts.

Below is the transcript
I've highlighted key areas for analysis.

     "Good afternoon, everybody.  Earlier today, I was briefed by my homeland security team on the events in Boston. We’re continuing to monitor and respond to the situation as it unfolds. And I’ve directed the full resources of the federal government to help state and local authorities protect our people, increase security around the United States as necessary, and investigate what happened.

    "The American people will say a prayer for Boston tonight. And Michelle and I send our deepest thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims in the wake of this senseless loss.

    "We don’t yet have all the answers. But we do know that multiple people have been wounded, some gravely, in explosions at the Boston Marathon.

    "I’ve spoken to FBI Director Mueller and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano, and they’re mobilizing the appropriate resources to investigate and to respond.

    "I’ve updated leaders of Congress in both parties, and we reaffirmed that on days like this there are no Republicans or Democrats - we are Americans, united in concern for our fellow citizens.

    "I’ve also spoken with Governor Patrick and Mayor Menino, and made it clear that they have every single federal resource necessary to care for the victims and counsel the families. And above all, I made clear to them that all Americans stand with the people of Boston .

    "Boston police, fire fighters, and first responders as well as the National Guard responded heroically, and continue to do so as we speak. It’s a reminder that so many Americans serve and sacrifice on our behalf every single day, without regard to their own safety, in dangerous and difficult circumstances. And we salute all those who assisted in responding so quickly and professionally to this tragedy.

    "We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. But make no mistake - we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we'll find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.

    "Today is a holiday in Massachusetts - Patriots’ Day. It’s a day that celebrates the free and fiercely independent spirit that this great American city of Boston has reflected from the earliest days of our nation. And it’s a day that draws the world to Boston’s streets in a spirit of friendly competition. Boston is a tough and resilient town. So are its people. I'm supremely confident that Bostonians will pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city. And as they do, the American people will be with them every single step of the way.

    "You should anticipate that as we get more information, our teams will provide you briefings. We're still in the investigation stage at this point. But I just want to reiterate we will find out who did this and we will hold them accountable.

    "Thank you very much."

Here  are four lessons we can all learn from President Obama's speech:


1)  It was brief.

Less is indisputably  more.

As could be seen in this video provided by The Daily Conversation, the speech was all of three minutes and seventeen seconds. It may have been brief but it was apt. President Obama understood that people wanted reassurance and needed their fear, pain or loss to be acknowledged. Indeed, no one appreciates long rambling anecdotes, despite being  well-intentioned, or great oratory which tends to glorify the speaker and does not convey the sense of  'togetherness'.

2)  It answered questions despite the absence of key components such as the "Why",  "Who",  "When/How Long"  and  the "How"...

...And in the face of incomplete information. It was revealed that there were in fact explosions, (the "What"), and the area the blasts occurred was also mentioned. The speech gave the assurance that the FBI had been directed to investigate and to respond utilising whatever resources at its disposal, (the "Crisis-Mode Plan").

Although not all six components of an effective Communications Strategy  were present; (which are crucial for handling multiple pieces of information and for ensuring that details provided are relevant to the circumstances); the speech was able to provide some answers based on the information that was available at that time.

The pieces of the puzzle began to emerge later, such as the time/duration of the bombings: the twin blasts having occurred within 12 seconds of each other, (the "When/How Long"); as well as details of the "How", which  came two days later, revealing that  an element of a pressure cooker was used and that ball bearings, nails etc. were found at the site.

The point being made here is that people want to know  factual information as you receive it, not speculations or hypotheses. And do not tarry either in your delivery. I have always emphasised the importance of feedback. This is vital to being perceived as credible and also reassures people of your commitment to providing a solution. Do not wait until you get full disclosure before you make your statement. That simply isn't fair and would be considered insensitive by all those desperate for information.

3) It  contained strong  personal pronoun-verb combinations, persuasive phrases and powerful sentences.

Some of these indicated a sense of focussed and reassuring leadership such as :

"I’ve directed"; 

"I've  updated";

"I’ve also spoken....and made it clear..."


Other phrases conveyed a sense of unity and strength of purpose:


"We reaffirmed that on days like this...we are Americans"; 


"We will get to the bottom of this"; 

"We will hold them accountable".

Also expressed was a sense of national pride and admiration:

“Boston police...responded heroically”

“I'm supremely confident that Bostonians will...move forward as one proud city.

All were conveyed in a simple manner, easily understood by all. And that was key to a delivery which resonated with the public.

4)  It conveyed the element of compassion.

President Obama's use of the phrase: "this senseless lossevokes empathy. In the same vein, stating his deep concern for the American people, as well as that of the First Lady, Michelle Obama, shows  compassion.

The statement  indirectly tells us:

"I can only imagine what you are feeling. I don't know what I'd have done if I lost a loved one in this manner".

This perhaps is one of the most powerful parts of the speech.

Before you make anyone 'pay' for a dastardly act, take a moment to commiserate with those who are suffering. Remember the victims and their grieving families.


Although not 'visible' in a written speech, the tone of your voice, your body language and facial expressions, all impact your delivery to the public. A grimace here; an immobile face there; not looking directly into the camera and thus not 'connecting' with your audience - all do not make you relatable or believable. Remember perception is everything. Moreover, visual cues are easily captured by the media.

For all those grieving or traumatised -  our prayers go out to you for the strength to carry on...

What other tips do you think we can learn from President Obama's speech about the Boston  bombings?  Please share your opinions below.



N.B -  First image courtesy of  the Catskill Chronicle website. Other images courtesy of