The “Master of Disaster” on how to solve the Obamacare rollout message muddle

October 24, 2013

Mark Fabiani, who made his name in Washington as special counsel to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, has gone on to become the preeminent crisis communications consultant in the country. He's steered Lance Armstrong through a doping scandal, Goldman Sachs during the sub-prime loan fiasco and even Madonna in an effort to rebuild her charity's brand.  He, along with his business partner Chris LeHane, were dubbed the "Masters of Disaster" by Newsweek and went on to write a book by the same name. With the White House struggling to get out in front of the problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, we reached out to Mark to get his take on what the administration should be doing to turn its messaging problems around. Our conversation -- conducted vie e-mail -- is below.

FIX: President Obama has made clear that firing Kathleen Sebelius is not an option.  But, is firing SOMEONE a way to show forward movement?  What are the pluses and minuses?

Mark: Accountability is important -- but this is a marathon and not a sprint and what people are looking for is a seriousness of purpose when it comes to fixing the problem. In my view, the White House should make clear that a specific entity -- someone with well respected national expertise -- has been brought in to fix the issue; they should specify a series of short-term expectation markers they are confident they can reach; they should meet those expectations; and then make sure in the long-run that the person brought in actually has the real chops to get this working.


A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site in this October 1, 2013 file photo in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

FIX: How much has handling a crisis like this changed in the Twitter age? Every utterance is parsed, tweeted and turned into a Buzzfeed listicle within moments.  How do you combat that reality when you are in the center of the storm?

Mark: More than ever, it is important to recognize this is a marathon and not a sprint -- and not react and respond to every development. In fact, because of the role of social media, it is critical to get the strategy right from the beginning and then adjust tactics as events warrant.   All too often, fundamental mistakes are made in the fog of crisis by those who either panic or feel so much pressure that they say or do something that in fact only throws more fuel on the fire. Thus, for the White House, in this situation, it needs a real game plan to substantively understand how the online issues can in fact be fixed and then develop its campaign based on these facts -- even if it means getting beaten up for a few days.

FIX: Finish this sentence: When in the middle of a political crisis, the best thing to do is________.

Mark: Realize that at the end of the day your north star is rebuilding trust by (A) doing no further harm; (B) Maintaining your discipline in the fog of the crisis and executing on your long-term game plan; and (C) Understanding the importance of maintaining and building credibility as this is the the path to restoring trust.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | October 24, 2013