Foreign policy experts think there’s nothing to it, but the handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro was a historic spectacle at an event with a world audience.
So how do you choose the right moment for a public relations coup? We’ll get into that, but first a bit of background.
It was the first time leaders from the two countries have been captured shaking hands since before the Cuban revolution in 1959 and subsequent 1961 end to diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 2000, it was reported that former US president Bill Clinton shook former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s hand behind closed doors at a UN event.
On Tuesday this week, the two presidents, against the backdrop of a South African peacemaker Nelson Mandela’s funeral, made history as they clasped each other’s hands and exchanged greetings for a few seconds.
Obama passed along a line of national leaders as he made his way to the podium to deliver a eulogy for Mandela. On the way he kissed Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff on both cheeks. The kiss is significant because, as the The Economist reports, Brazil and the US are at odds over spying revelations, so the two interactions have been seen as politeness rather than diplomacy.
“It would frankly have been rude to rebuff him, not least at an occasion in which Obama spoke movingly of Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation,” The Economist reports of the encounter with Castro.
Foreign Policy Magazine’s blog was touched by the moment: “On Tuesday, that animosity was forgotten, if only for a moment, as Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand on his way down a line of dignitaries. More touching than the handshake, though, was the joke or small talk that was evidently exchanged between the two men.”
Seeing the moment as manufactured PR is tempting, but Obama’s national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, denied it was planned, and said “the president’s focus was on honouring the legacy of Nelson Mandela”.
But the handshake has generated a lot of discussion regardless of its intended meaning. Is it a PR coup or is it sending the wrong message?
Clearly a message of thawing relations is unlikely given Rhodes’ statement but Socom public relations managing director David Hawkins, who has written a book on managing relationships, says other benefits emerged.
“From a PR perspective, it could well open the door to some more dialogue on human rights issues,” he says.
“The point is the action has taken place and that’s the history; the question is: what’s the future? I don’t think it’s going to do any harm at all for the relationship between these two countries.”
Hawkins says a public display of reconciliation has benefits but “the most important thing to be aware of is insincerity”.
“We do live in a much more transparent world and so there must be genuine intent to move the situation to better ground,” he says. “And if you can’t do that, just don’t do it.”
Sometimes two parties can genuinely put their differences aside. This week, former rival airlines US Airways and American Airways merged to become the world’s largest airline. But a common outcome of business spats is not to resolve issue A, but to agree that business would prosper if they put it to one side and move on.
Hawkins says moving on still counts.
“Providing you are going to be true to your intent, and you are quite clear on what your intentions are, if there’s a mutual benefit and you’re doing it but it’s not going to heal the rift and you acknowledge that, then that’s fine.
“You don’t even have to acknowledge it publicly, but as long as it’s acknowledged between the two parties that’s absolutely fine.”
Domestically, the handshake made Obama an easy target. Republican Senator John McCain likened it to former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler prior to World War Two.
In PR, you can’t win them all.