US President Joe Biden’s interview with ABC News on the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, leading to a Taliban takeover and humanitarian crisis, has been widely criticised. Some of his responses were jumbled and he seemed to struggle with detail, perhaps because of his age. But even aside from this, there were five fundamental lessons that anyone having to give a crisis interview could learn from, if they don’t want their credibility to be severely weakened.
1. Get the style and tone right
The President’s responses were seen as tone-deaf – his style was defensive and self-justifying rather than conveying empathy or acknowledging the enormity of what was happening. He gave little impression of having got a grip of the situation.
2. Show sympathy
He showed little or no sympathy for those caught up in the events in Kabul, who were suffering as a result of his decisions. For instance, when asked about the horrific pictures of desperate civilians trying but failing to hang on to US planes as they took off, he brushed this off (incorrectly) as having been four or five days previously – as if that was the issue.
3. Don’t underplay your own failures and blame everybody but yourself
Ignoring the monumental failures of US intelligence, and denying any mistakes had been made, Mr Biden said that no-one had predicted that the Taliban would take over as quickly as it did, and appeared to blame the Afghan army for ‘collapsing’.
4. Get your facts right
The President maintained there was ‘no way’ to leave Afghanistan without chaos ensuing, but six weeks previously he had said a Taliban takeover was ‘highly unlikely.’ He also denied having been advised that it would be feasible to keep the country stable by maintaining a modest US presence, whereas the records show that such advice was indeed given. There were a number of other errors of fact in the interview, for example that the Afghan army was 300,000 strong, rather than 178,000.
5. Don’t take only limited or no questions
Mr Biden was earlier criticised for giving a ‘press conference’ during which he wouldn’t take any questions. His chosen interviewer on ABC News was seen as hardly impartial, having previously been a trusted aide to Bill Clinton. This gave the impression of the whole thing being stage-managed to make it as easy as possible for the President. The only way to gain respect in a crisis is to be properly prepared to face the tough questions, and to have some credible, verifiable answers.
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