The PR Punt That Changed the Cold War


The New York Times today announced that Günter Schabowski has died, and I’m grieving because I almost feel like I knew him. We all make mistakes, or pretend that we know something when we really don’t, but it would be hard to imagine a PR slip or punt as consequential as his 1989 press announcement. Responding to a reporter’s question as to when travel restrictions between East and West Germany would be lifted, Schabowski, the spokesperson for the East German government appeared confused, shuffled his notes for a moment, and then said haltingly, “It takes effect, as far as I know … it is now … immediately.” Soon after his announcement, thousands of East and West Germans massed at the BerlinWall and the Wall came tumblin’ down. Don’t believe me? Just ask Tom Brokaw.

He was in Berlin and one of the reporters. The thing was, Günter wasn’t supposed to make that particular announcement on that particular day. Oopsy!

I first learned about this legendary PR blunder in 2013 while standing atop the underground bunker in Berlin where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun purportedly met their demise. Our walking tour guide, a masterful storyteller whose grandmother was the Marlene Dietrich, had just finished telling us the gruesome history of the site. It lies under a grassy quadrangle framed by communist era apartment buildings, now popular residences for artists and former government officials.

After the World War II history lesson, fascinating but in a remote hard-to-relate-to kind of way, our guide suddenly launched into the real story behind the fall of the Berlin wall. As he described the intense mood of the times, including the fact that an area not far from where we stood that had been bristling with tanks in the late 1980’s, it was still a bit hard to visualize it all on a sunny September day while people strolled freely back a forth across the inlaid stones that now marked where the Wall once stood.

But then he told our group about Günter’s announcement and I was instantly transported into the press room in 1989. Most managers working in marketing and public relations have been faced with intense situations before. Heck, I have been interview by local and regional press, as well as the Wall Street Journal and CNN, but those stories were inconsequential compared to this one.

And having been thoroughly media trained on numerous occasions, I knew the one cardinal PR rule that must never be violated under any circumstances. If you don’t know the answer to a reporter’s question – don’t ever punt!

The pressure on Günter must have been excruciating. He quite literally had a gun to his back and the fate of a divided Germany and the momentum of the Cold War hung in the balance. So why did he choose that exact moment to improvise? Our guide, Mr. Dietrich, had a fascinating follow-up story that may hold a clue. It seems that the guide had been telling the tale of Günter’s gaffe for years on that very same spot on top of Hitler’s bunker. On a identically sunny September day a few years prior, he was retelling the PR tale when he noticed an elderly man pacing in front of one of the apartment buildings. As the story continued, the old man paced closer and closer to the group of photo-snapping tourists until he stood next to our guide and interrupted him bruskly in a loud, clear voice.

“Speak you of Günter Schabowski?” the old man queried with crossed arms and a steely gaze. “Why yes!” the guide responded, slightly annoyed at the interruption. The old man straightened up, standing proudly with feet apart, hands on hips, chin up and elbows proudly jutting in the archetypal hero’s pose. Then, in a moment worthy of Wagner, he proclaimed, “Here stands Günter Schabowski!”

Well, the guide was thrilled, the tourists were thrilled and after many handshakes and clicking of cameras, Günter Schabowski slowly and proudly walked back into the apartment building where he had lived for so many years. I’m sure our Berlin walking tour guide has since recounted the story to hundreds of tourists from dozens of countries countless times since. But I’ll never forget the epilogue to the story of Günter Schabowski, the man who changed history with a single PR gaffe.

Or was it really a gaffe?

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