Remember the Exxon Valdez?

Spin Class
by Lanny J. Davis

Post date: 10.06.06 – From TNR Online
Ask any professional crisis manager–or any academic who teaches this discipline in business schools–to name the worst-handled crisis in the history of the universe, and Exxon’s mishandling of the Valdez oil-tanker spill is inevitably at the top of the list. High-ranking Exxon managers found a way to break every rule of Crisis Management 101: They didn’t immediately get all of the facts out; they waited too long to even show up at the scene; and, most importantly, they delayed far too long before telling the truth and accepting responsibility. And so the bad news got worse–the story continued to dribble out, and the damage to the environment was nearly exceeded by the damage to Exxon’s reputation. In short, Exxon and Valdez became the poster children for how to mishandle a crisis.

Well, Valdez, move over. This week introduced the world to an even more inept performance: Dennis Hastert’s handling of the Mark Foley matter. It is, from start to finish, a case study in how not to manage a scandal.

Last spring is when Hastert and his Republican colleagues say they first learned that Foley had sent “overfriendly” (but not sexually explicit) emails to a House page. They also say they knew even these messages were serious enough that the parents of the young man had asked that Foley stop. That should have been enough to execute the following Crisis Management 101 plan:

The speaker and his colleagues should have called in Foley, showed him the emails, and asked him to submit to a full, bipartisan investigation by either the House Page Board or the House Ethics Committee. They should have notified both the chairman and the ranking Democrat on the House Page Board. They should have told Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and asked her to support the bipartisan investigation. And then they should have issued a joint statement. It’s possible that Foley would have reacted to this plan by resigning and seeking counseling (which he has only now sought). But, in any event, everything would have been on the table.

This may sound politically counterintuitive–especially in today’s hyperpartisan environment–but it would have paid off. There would definitely have been a short-term Republican political crisis, but that would have been better in the spring than now, just weeks before the midterm elections. And the political damage to the overall Republican cause would likely have been minimal, since the crisis would have focused on Foley’s conduct alone–not on the appearance that, in hiding the scandal, Republicans were either negligent or motivated by politics.

Of course, people in the center of crises rarely see the value of a “tell it all/tell it early/tell it yourself” strategy. So what should Hastert do now to minimize the crisis rather than magnify it? Hint: Don’t sink into a defensive crouch. The law of crisis management is: Stop the bleeding first. Don’t ask for, or expect, a complete cure, at least not in the short term. Hastert announced Thursday that he took responsibility for what happened, but if the speaker asked for my help, here’s the statement I would have him deliver:

I and my colleagues screwed up–we should have reacted to these warning signals about Mark Foley differently and sought a bipartisan investigation when we first learned of this information. We allowed political considerations to get in the way–that is the only explanation I can come up with as to why we didn’t inform the Democratic member of the House Page Board at the time but only the Republican chair. And for that, I and my colleagues are truly sorry.
Someone asked me whether I could think of any historical examples where crises had abated through transparency and accountability. Actually, I wrote about one in a book I recently published on the scandal culture: In the closing weeks of the tight 1884 presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, was told that his local newspaper was about to report that he had fathered of an out-of-wedlock child. When his panicked campaign manager asked Cleveland what should they tell the press, he is reported to have answered: “Tell the truth.” And so he admitted that he had fathered the child and also that he had supported the child and his mother for years.

The Republicans, of course, huffed and puffed about immorality in the wake of the nasty newspaper stories. But then the public, apparently appreciating both Cleveland’s honesty and his human weaknesses, moved on. Cleveland won the election–the first Democrat to win the White House since the Civil War. Hastert should read his history.

And what about the Democrats? Here, the strategy is obvious: Avoid making this into a partisan issue, stick to the facts, call for an investigation, and shut up. So far, the Democratic congressional leadership, for the most part, seems to be following this strategy. The one exception was the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which couldn’t resist putting out “talking points” to its email list, some of them in red ink. They were pretty restrained, given the usual rhetoric that comes from the DNC. But I would advise the DNC to keep quiet and let the congressional Democratic leadership carry the message, if anything further needs to be said.

Lanny J. Davis served as President Bill Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-1998 and heads the Legal Crisis Communications practice group at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.


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