Tuesday, November 1st, 2011
Campaign Crisis Communications
In light of the latest “buzz” plaguing the Cain Campaign, I’m inspired to do a quick tutorial about political crisis communications. This is not because I support one candidate over another, but rather, as someone who values the importance of effective and precise communication, I am constantly stunned when someone violates the basic rules of messaging.
So as with all posts that mention a political figure, please leave your red, blue, tea, and occupy hats at the door. This is about messaging and managing a difficult situation.
When a candidate runs for any office, city, county, state or federal in nature, one would think that his or her campaign manager would first sit down and say, “what and where are your skeletons?” “I need to know all of the things that could come back to bite you, large and small. What are the pictures, who are the people, what were the grades, do you have family histories that are less than politically correct, did you have your own moments of said nature?” These questions aren’t to humiliate the candidate, or even talk them out of running. What good proactive questions do, is bring all problem areas, and potential crises from out of the dark and into light so they can be addressed.
The proverbial skeleton in the closet isn’t new in politics! We’ve seen them all:
- Pregnant children
- Sexual harassment allegations
- Racist property rocks
- Illigitimate children
- Drug use
Sadly, the list is endless, and the number of candidates and public figures who have survived the crisis and gone on to tell the tale and keep their lives and/or jobs is almost as long. The problem is that those who fall, do so because they believe wholeheartedly, that if they keep their secrets to themselves and don’t make them public, no one else will ever find out, and thus it will never need to be addressed. So they don’t practice what to say IF (or as I like to say…WHEN) the news actually comes out.
For instance, when news of the “N” Rock at the hunting camp frequented by Rick Perry made its most recent run through the headlines, he fumbled. Why wasn’t someone already writing the following apology: “I’m embarrassed to have been so insensitive back then, that I didn’t appreciate the impact of such a word. I ignored the term in order to continue enjoying my hobby of hunting. I know that it was wrong, and I can’t begin to understand what impact my behavior had on others, and I am sorry. I recognize the valuable role African-Americans play in all levels of society, and to diminish that for something like a hobby, is just silly.”
Had that been his statement to address things, I guarantee he would have shortened the length of the news cycle on that one, and likely not slipped so dramatically in the polls. Instead, he made an almost apology, and in less than a week reopened the conversation about whether the nation’s first African-American President was actually born in the United States. That was clearly done without planning, and without thought about how it would look so soon after the previous gaffe.
Then we have Herman Cain. Allegations of sexual harassment didn’t stop Clearance Thomas from becoming a Supreme Court Justice, nor did it stop Arnold Schwartzenegger or Bill Clinton from becoming Governor and President, respectively. Had the former restaurant executive sat with his campaign team at the beginning and said, “ok, I was hit with these allegations of harassment more than 10 years ago. Nothing came of it. There was a settlement, but I don’t remember how much, and that’s all. How do we address that, if (when) it comes up?” The PR team would have had time to research all of the details, which is what reporters are now doing, have him prepared with the key facts, and the one-liner dismissal statement like he had when the issue of the tax lien came up last week.
Instead, we’re seeing the slow leak of information, and reponses to each leak, rather than the issue as a whole. We’re watching the story shift a quarter of an inch with each development, which will likely chip away at his credibility, and poll numbers.
Lessons learned from these two campaign blunders:
- Know your own crises and prepare for them long before anyone else finds out about them.
- Don’t be afraid to prepare messages just in case. Be as superstitious as you want about jynxing something by saying it, but remember, better safe than sorry. “Chance favors the prepared mind” (my favorite line from the less-than-stellar movie Under Seige 2 Dark Territory).
- Know the true facts of your own scandal or crisis, and know how you will address them, when asked.
- Make clear, direct and definitive statements, and avoid making light of something when you know more is coming.
Those are the big four. If you are preparing a candidate for the campaign journey, remember these key things, and the ride will be a little smoother.
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