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Crisis Management: The Public Relations Nightmare

By Holly Robichaud

In this day and age of “gotcha” politics, the 24-hours news cycle, blogs, u-tube, and camera phones, why do some politicians still feel insulated from the scandal of cheating on their spouse, tapping toes in the bathroom, and hiding cash in the freezer?

The political consultants will spin that they are human, just like the rest of us.  The non-consultant answer is ego.  No matter the reason for scoundrels being scoundrels, their actions are keeping crisis consultants fully employed.

With corruption more pervasive in the American consciousness now than at any time since Watergate – and with Congressional and legislative approval ratings at their lowest level in history, betraying the trust of loved ones and the voting public should not be committed lightly. Do the politicians who choose to stray from the path of righteousness really not realize that 95% of all politicians are going to get caught and be exposed to the  public? 

For those officials, who believe they are above the law or perhaps made of Teflon, the best advice I can give is “think, before you act.”  You are playing Russian roulette with your political career and your family’s reputation.  Just look at what happened to former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.  No one is above having a ‘former’ political career. 

With that being said, some politicians still manage to outlast their scandals.  Survival is dependent on the magnitude of the crisis, the subject matter, the spin, the public’s appetite for a media lynching, whether jail time is involved, and even where the indiscretion has taken place.  In other words, what you can get away with north of the Mason-Dixon Line may be far different than the punishment doled out for the same infraction in the sunny south, and vice versa.

So how do some elected officials escape the wrath of voters, while others are sent packing or ushered down the road dressed in stripes and set down to think about their wrong doings?

In today’s political environment, when a public relations nightmare is about to erupt, savvy politicians call their political consultant for crisis management advice even before they consult with their lawyer.  Elected officials and challengers alike, who attempt to manage a crisis alone, usually turn a bad situation into a nightmare of mammoth proportion.

Consider these general guidelines for crisis management:

Apologize, admit shortcomings, and seek help.
This strategy is employed on a daily basis by Hollywood celebrities.  As long as the delinquent celebrity claims victimhood for some form of addiction to alcohol, drugs or sex, the public generally forgives.  Politicians have been successful with this approach as well. The direction can be even more successful if enhanced by spousal support.  On the other hand, if the spouse abandons the ship, the ship will sink faster than the Titanic.

Ignore the crisis, hope it goes away.
Rarely does this work, especially when every person in the country is now empowered as a reporter with camera and phone.  In fact this strategy, which forces the official to campaign and live in harmony with a ticking time-bomb, is successful only if the scandal is never exposed.  Hence, we don’t know actually how often this is a workable solution. Senator Larry Craig certainly serves as a recent example of why ignoring and hoping for the best clearly does not work.  He attempted to quietly dispose of his toe tapping arrest and the result was a career-ending exposé. 

Blame the messenger.
This common tactic is used often to cloud the issue by questioning the motives of the person or group making the allegation.  Who can forget the right-wing conspiracy professed by the Clintons?  Rather than use of “apology,” this strategy was implemented to deal with the intern sex scandal of the century. The Clintons placed the accuracy of the accusations into question by counter punching and attacking Republicans as the self-serving messenger.

Pre-emptive confession.
Honesty is, even in politics, the best policy and the sooner, the better.  Tell the media and the public about your past indiscretions before they can be exposed.  If you share your failures up front, you will be able to spin the story in your best light and take most of the sting out of the scandal. President George W. Bush is probably the best example of a pre-emptive confession.  Reporters worked day and night attempting to uncover stories of drinking and drug episodes, but it did not matter because Bush had already explained that when he was “young and reckless, he was young and reckless.”  The Bush confession made all the stories old news. Voters knew of the problems from the candidate rather than the media and this left little or no sting in the story.

Change the subject.
This tactic works best when a scandal is uncovered by a political opponent.  Instead of responding to the allegations, you tell the voters that this attack is nothing more than an attempt by your rival to distract voters from the real issues. This strategy can be very successful, but should be preserved for opponent attacks. In most cases, if the scandal was truly credible, the media would have broken the story in the first place.

Often times, despite employing brilliant spin and strategy, a politician might never survive the scandal and remain in office. Some scandalous circumstances have no acceptable spin to distract a discerning public.  A graceful exit is quite often the best answer to avoiding a long drawn out media feeding frenzy when the final result was predictable from the beginning.

The result of these political deadly sins is usually predicable from the beginning:

  1. Lying under oath.  It is never a good thing for a politician to be forced to testify under oath, but if caught lying, he or she will probably be forced into a resignation.
  2. Sexual escapades with persons under age or in your employ. 
  3. Racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud. Generally speaking, anything that results in a conviction and time in jail.
  4. Hypocrisy, especially when it involves a breach of the very principles that were your campaign’s strength. Who will forget that Eliot Spitzer campaigned on law and order?
  5. Drinking and driving, although at one time was a survivable offense, has in more judicious times become unforgiveable. It is a cardinal sin to put people’s lives in jeopardy by driving drunk.

There is rarely a second opportunity for those who are defeated over a scandal or forced to resign. My best advice remains my first advice – think before you act!

Most importantly, if you do not care to avoid disgracing yourself, think of your family and of those who have supported your rise to public office in the first place.

Holly Robichaud has over 20 years experience in helping
Republicans get elected to office.  She specializes in strategy,
direct mail, voter contact programs, and campaign fundraising.
She can be reached at
Click here to contact this Author


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