Crisis Management: Get the Right Consultant – Case Study : Crisis communications
Former U.S. Representative Gary Condit’s handling of his relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy was a nadir for public relations and crisis management, and, some say, human decency. “Unprecedented political meltdown” was a common description of his media performance at the time.
Even though years have passed since then, what does the Condit case teach if, God forbid, you must protect your reputation in the face of potential public embarrassment?
Choose public interest or self-interest – you can’t have it both ways. Condit apparently chose self. His defensive actions and comments were mostly useless to the rest of us. If minimizing personal and legal liability were the goal, then he should have stonewalled the press and hunkered down for the duration.
Had he immediately chosen public interest – confession, contrition, etc. –he’d have either taken himself out of public play or at least lowered his profile. Humiliation was unavoidable, but it could have been shorter-lived.
Answer legitimate, tough questions in interviews – repeating key messages is rarely sufficient. In his interviews Condit clung to rehearsed statements like a drowning man to a life jacket. It looked silly. If you are truly not going to answer questions and only provide inflexible statements, then skip interviews and issue written statements.
Your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough legitimate questions. If you can’t or won’t answer, then crafted messages look like a dodge. Repeating such messages can work, but only in conjunction with answering questions. Also, in live broadcasts such as Condit’s with Connie Chung, metronomic repetition of message points, word-for-word, can appear insincere, even cynical. Instead, vary your phraseology and talk conversationally while conveying consistent concepts.
Get the best advisors and listen to them. I don’t know whether Condit retained consultants who shared his mindset and would not push him into constructive directions, or whether he got good people and didn’t follow their advice. If Condit’s performance is a reflection of the consultants’ best advice, then they did not serve him well. If lawyers were trying to protect him from self-incrimination, then they should have just muzzled him. It seems to me that his advisors endorsed his course of action. Following Condit’s poorly received interviews, his lawyer and his son independently appeared on national TV. And yet they mostly emphasized the same points as Condit.
In the consulting world there are fighters and there are problem-solvers. Fighters attack, usually blame the media, and engage in a battle of soundbites with opponents. Problem-solvers look for solutions, negotiations, and a process that the public perceives as fair. In my experience, fighting feels good at first – and also produces more billable hours – but often results in Pyrrhic victories. While being good news media fodder – fighting confuses the public. People often can’t determine whom to believe, and so default to their personal biases. Not good – if you are a politician, or a business leader.
So, when you choose between public interest and self-interest, choose consultants who mirror your intent. I recommend public interest and problem-solving consultants.
Good messages dictate good body language. Many criticized Condit’s shifty eyes, tense mouth, and rigid posture in his Chung interview. It’s no wonder. Unless you are a pathological liar, how do you relax, be open, spontaneous, and warm when your messages are defensive, non-responsive, and combative? The body doesn’t lie. If 1) your messages concern public interest rather than self-interest, 2) you believe them, and 3) you earnestly want to convey them, then your body language reflects it. You cannot mask what is in your heart.
Just do the right thing. In mock news interviews in media training – without any guidance from me – clients occasionally give stunningly heartwarming, reassuring comments in the face of awful crises. How do they do it? Afterward, they explain their stellar performances almost always the same way. They say, “It seemed like the right thing to do.” If only Congressman Condit had taken that tack early.