On a May evening in 2005, Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was returning to her home in Kabul, Afghanistan when she was abducted at gunpoint. The kidnapper was a known criminal who had previously murdered a young man after a ramson was not paid. Cantoni, a 32-year-old woman working with CARE International, was well known in the local community for her assistance to some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including the women left as war widows following decades of conflict in the country.
The Ministry of Interior Affairs, which was charged with running her rescue operations, was inundated with media queries, both from local press and from international journalists who flew into the country to cover the breaking story. One local TV station went so far as to call Cantoni’s cell phone, only to have it answered by the kidnapper, allowing him to begin a live, on-air negotiation of demands. All control of messaging had been lost.
John Boit and Jon Tapper were in Afghanistan working with the US Department of Defense and the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs on counternarcotics messaging. Immediately following the kidnapping, they saw the messaging spiral out of control and offered their assistance. They quickly convened a standing daily meeting to coordinate messages and actions among all of the key stakeholders, including the US, British and Italian Embassies, US and NATO military forces, Afghan government officials, and the hostage negotiators themselves. Through coordinated planning and careful and disciplined messaging — with the help from the war widows to President Karzai himself — the group was able to take back control of key media space that showed that Cantoni was a “daughter of Afghanistan” who had come in peace.
After 24 days, Cantoni was released to authorities. The kidnapper was later apprehended and killed by security forces. In a note to Boit and Tapper, one CARE official thanked Boit and Tapper for their valuable assistance: “We particularly appreciated the leadership you showed during the difficult early days when consensus was hard to reach, and the creativity you shared with the group helped generate many media-friendly events that kept Clementina in the forefront of the public’s eye.”