Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Damage Control

My chosen vocation, at least the one that keeps us in home heating oil and pizza, is media relations. I’ve spent a number of years helping a variety of companies and entities communicate with the public, through the press, under all sets of circumstances. And as a longstanding practitioner and student of this work, I always find it fascinating to watch how others navigate through difficult situations, controversies and media firestorms. The facts the various subjects are confronted with, the pressing questions, what they say – or refuse to say – how they handle the unwelcome attention and manage their way through very visible troubles.

And so it’s been these last few weeks with John Edwards and his marital infidelity/possible paternity issues. I don’t need to go through the whole history, a quick Google News search will produce all the necessary background. The basic ingredients in this unfortunate stew include an elected official and erstwhile Presidential candidate, his (possibly gravely) ill wife, an affair that has now been acknowledged and a child that may or may not be his. He says no, many people out there seem to think yes. I guess that more or less covers the broad strokes.

It’s notable (and many have noted) that it was the tabloid press, in the form of the National Enquirer, that was single-handedly chasing after Edwards on these issues for several months. No other media outlet followed, even as “evidence” of the infidelity and its possible result mounted. At some point, the noise got loud enough that Edwards decided (or was told) he needed to actually say something. So he made the mistake that is so common to public people in his situation – he deluded himself into thinking that he was still in control, and what he said, how much he was willing to reveal, was up to him. You can almost hear the internal monologue that resulted in this classic, and chronic, miscalculation. “OK, they’ve hunted me down, these blood-sucking jackals, there’s a need to address the issue, so I’ll say this, I’ll give them what they want, and then things will go back to normal. They get this much, and no more!”

But the reality, for those unfortunate few who act badly and find themselves in the public crosshairs as a result, is that the opportunity to exit on their own terms with a partial or expedient response is already gone. You no longer get to decide how much to give, one way or the other the media is going to get it all – and you are going to look so bad, disingenuous and pathetic during the long death march it takes to get there that you will ultimately wish you had wiped the slate clean with that first cloth, not the one you get in the end – which is dirty, tattered beyond recognition and not even remotely up to the job.

If Edwards was getting good advice in this situation, he would have been counseled to admit to everything that was true, and fight everything that wasn’t – fully and resolutely. The child is yours? OK, you made a terrible mistake, you are working with your family to secure the forgiveness you don’t deserve, and the offspring that resulted from your indiscretion is going to be taken care of, you are going to play a role in this innocent life, it’s all terrible and please give us our privacy while we deal with this. Then go away, get out of sight, out of the public eye, and at some point far down the road we can talk about a re-entry strategy.

You had an affair, but the child is not yours? Take the first half of the response above and make sure that as soon as the “I strayed” statement is out of your mouth you are in a position to wave at the assembled media throng the results of a paternity test that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you did not father this child. Then go away, get out of sight, out of the public eye, and at some point (maybe not quite so far) down the road we can talk about a re-entry strategy.

Because the central truth that overhangs this situation and others like it (Martha Stewart comes to mind, Bill Clinton, Paris Hilton, anyone who has been in the center of a storm severe enough to motivate sleep-deprived reporters and photographers with coffee breath and three-day stubble to camp outside their door) is that people are ultimately forgiving – as long as they believe they’re being leveled with and witnessing genuine and heartfelt contrition from those who have been found to have acted badly.

Too often, those who find themselves on the wrong end of the media stick compound the objectionable behavior that got them there by clinging to the belief that they’re too smart by half – they’re still in control, they make the rules. But that ship has sailed. You know who’s running the show now? The guy sitting in a diner in Nebraska, reading his morning paper and seeing what you said. The woman going out to the movies with friends, deciding which ticket to buy based on how she feels about the names up there on the marquee. The shopper trying to decide between product X and Y, motivated by the public events and recent headlines related to the companies that make them. Start with these people, manage the things you are going to say and do all the way back from there, and if you see a disconnect or break along the way you know you’re going down a wrong or incomplete path.

Don’t get me wrong, there are all kinds of people who do terrible things and are never caught, never have to message their way out of a resulting public crisis. That’s life. But for those who are found out, who get to endure the unsettling experience of watching the media (a designation that continues to expand, for better or worse) grab the end of a string that leads to an uncomfortable and unfortunate place, the only real option is rational and reasonably expressed self-immolation. Take your lumps, with a forthright explanation that gives people something real to hold onto, hopefully to empathize with. In the immortal words of Miley “check out my new camera” Cyrus, “everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days… nobody’s perfect.”

Manage through the crisis with honesty, then retire, regroup and – if you are lucky and blessed enough for the stars to properly align – prepare to rise.


Blogger Heather of the EO said...

Love this post. So well said and so true.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Charisse said...

Great post! I agree, very well said!

12:54 PM  
Blogger Mrs.O said...

This is really good stuff. Sometimes the way up is down.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

Amen! I'm in media relations, too, and I enjoyed this post. You said some good things. Keep it up.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

I wrote a paper in college for a Political Behavior class. The topic was political scandals and why some politicians recover from them and others don't. With very few exceptions, the ones that survived were the ones that acknowledged what they had done and apologized for it. It's the covering up and the lying that people ultimately can't forgive. I couldn't agree more with the sentiments expressed in this post.

4:41 PM  

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