The Old Rules on Crisis Don’t Apply

The Obama Administration found itself this week the subject of criticism unparalleled since it first came into office.  If a perfect storm is the confluence of three events, this was the combination of four controversies unfolding concurrently and all in different directions.  Perhaps we can call it a plus-perfect storm.

While the White House talking heads played Whack-a-Mole, PR professionals watched and dredged up the most tired of crisis communication axioms – Get the bad news out quickly and get it behind you.  The Administration could do neither and largely because new news emerged on what seemed a near constant basis.

crisis, Administration, Obama, IRS, Congress, media

The reality is that the axioms of crisis communication are outdated and irrelevant in a news environment where controversy drives coverage.  The media have little to gain from allowing a good story to fade and this was not one, but four exceptionally good stories.  For the press, it was a Brouhaha Buffet and the servings were endless.

What the Administration needed to do is much the same as corporations that find themselves in the midst of a crisis – demonstrate responsible management action; get control of the story; be visible, accessible and truthful.

To be fair, the President tried.  He fired the acting head of the IRS.  This was quickly derided as a meaningless action since the guy was leaving anyway.  A more forceful initiative needed to be mounted.   This likely should have been a multi-tiered program of face-to-face meetings with Congressional leadership, wholesale and transparent investigations, and the creation of an overhaul panel to recommend structural changes at the IRS that would preempt a recurrence.  The President spoke about such things, but didn’t actually do them.  Responsible management action was not demonstrated.

Controlling the story may have meant a direct and candid appearance on one of the important and influential broadcast programs.  The President sitting down with Scott Pelley of “60-Minutes” might have been a worthy place to start.  That one remains on the table and should occur without further delay.  It would provide an opportunity to deliver a perspective on the story that is sorely lacking.  This President is clearly terrible in the rough and tumble, give and take of the open press conference.  In a one-on-one interview, he has proven to be compelling and in control, not just of himself, but also the story and its future direction.

As for visible and accessible, the President enjoys an advantage few corporate leaders facing crises have at their disposal.  The media cover his every move.  They report whatever he does.  Time to engage with the American people, be seen answering their questions, and show concern for others such as those who lost everything in a moment as a result of tornadoes in Texas.  And while he is doing this, opportunities will exist to speak with the press, tell them he is doing his job as President which includes addressing the controversies and making certain they are fully and properly resolved.  This is not the time to repair into the Oval Office and hope pictures of your silhouette standing in the window will remind people how Presidential you look.  More than ever, this is the time to be accessible and engaged.

The last part, however, may be the most difficult.  Being truthful opens one to greater criticism and potentially worse.  We cannot know where these controversies will lead and hyperbolic comparisons to Watergate – the penultimate dishonesty – are, for now, ill considered.  It remains to be seen.  But honesty pays dividends and the media’s only response can be cries that they should have been told sooner.  When companies find themselves in crisis, they gain greatly by saying what they do and do not know.  When Presidents bob and weave, it’s embarrassing to watch and damaging to their ability to overcome the problems.

We will see how these circumstances unfold, but we must stop kidding ourselves that the worn out old saws of crisis communication are the rubric for these times.  There are implications in these controversies for an election that won’t occur for another three years.  In short, getting the bad news out will not put it behind you.  Doing what is right, however, may at least give one the opportunity to recover.

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