The Messy Business of Spinning a Scandal
Public statements that obscure key facts. Overzealous prosecutors searching reporters phone records. The Internal Revenue Service targeting organizations with political interests contrary to the White House. And an executive-in-chief who is having trouble getting in front of a wave of very public troubles.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Senate Watergate hearings. Despite the fact that these current scandals likely dont rise to the level of Nixonian crimes, I sometimes feel Im just a black-and-white television and an awkward helicopter wave away from actually being there.
But as a crisis consultant to large organizations, the Obama administrations current travails can resemble the kind of messes I see on a regular basis. My impression is that President Obama is no scheming James Bond villain using the tools of government to intimidate foes and crush resistance, but rather just another chief executive overwhelmed by the day-to-day crush of eventsand thus disconnected from a dysfunctional and counterproductive communications response. Like any CEO, the president arrives at work to find himself engulfed by simultaneous scandals where the initial public response of his subordinates has made things worse, not better.
Viewed in this light, the White Houses oft-bungled response provides some real lessons for CEOs, and the lawyers and public affairs executives who advise them.
Several problems immediately leap out at me. First, there is a detachment of the CEO from the process of public response, or what I like to call the up-the-ladder, down-the-toilet method of creating statements and other materials for public dissemination. The general rule is as follows: If there are too many steps between the creation of talking points and their final approval, very important information tends to get stripped awayflushed down the toilet, if you willbefore the document gets to the top. Competing interests, political intrigue, and general ass-covering by various underlings and departments guide the process, rather than an interest in communicating what actually happened in a manner that informs the public and alleviates concerns. The chief executive never gets to see what was originally in there but got stripped away. He or she never gets a full presentation of the facts.
And make no mistake: Talking points in a crisis or scandal scenario are typically facts, not spin. Yes, they have a point of view and are phrased in a manner designed to put the best face on things, butparticularly in the crisis context, and more importantly in the government contexttalking points need to give an accurate description of the facts, or the blowback can be tremendous (see, the kerfuffle over the Benghazi talking points).
Second, there is the too-clever-by-half public relations problem. Sometimes I wonder if those in the public affairs and reputation business have seen too many TV shows involving cover-up, deception, and scandal. Or for ego reasons, or maybe to prove their worth to their bosses or clients, they feel the need to get creative when they should be straightforward and truthful. Unfortunately, this can often play right into the feelings of the client, who is usually desperately looking for a magic wand to wave that will make a scandal or PR crisis go away. Executives are too often willing to think that there is some secret ingredient, technique, or connection that will soften the blow without having to do the hard work of explaining, correcting . . . and even apologizing.
Consider in that regard, the IRS scandal, where agency officials attempted to break the news about political targetingand presumably, have it then go awayby planting a question in the Q&A portion of a tax seminar. I have been in this business for more than 25 years and am still at a loss to figure out why the announcement of so important an issue was handled this way. Was it in the hopes that it would not be noticed, and then at some future point the White House could maintain that it had been timely disclosed? Again, I am perplexed, but if the goal was to foster conspiracy theories . . . well then, to quote another U.S. president: Mission Accomplished.
Finally, there is the ever-present issue of tone at the top, which I see in corporate America all the time as well. It is a deeper problem, and it has to do with internal culture and internal perceptions as to what sort of behavior will be tolerated within an organization. Whether or not the White House actually knew of what was going on with Benghazi, with the IRS targeting, with the Department of Justice trampling on journalists First Amendment rights, it has been my experience that when such crises occur multiple times in an organization, something is rotten structurally that needs to be fixed at the CEO level. As my Irish mother used to say: The fish stinks from the head down.
In other words, if the rank-and-file throughout an organization come to believe misfeasanceor even straight-up malfeasancewill be condoned by the upper ranks of leadership . . . well, dont be surprised when crises bloom. As I wrote in my column regarding the Roman Catholic Church earlier this year, there needs to be zero tolerance for behavior that undermines an organizations mission and damages its brand, and that needs to be communicated, dramatically and effectively, up and down the divisions and departments of the organization.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Haggerty LLC and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009).