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Controlling a Political Crisis

Eric Dezenhall
Author, "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong"
Monday, March 17, 2008 10:00 AM

Eric Dezenhall, author of "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong," was online Monday, March 17 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss how politicians manage crises within administrations or campaigns, such as those recently faced by Eliot Spitzer and the 2008 presidential candidates.

The transcript follows.

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Eric Dezenhall: Good morning. Eric Dezenhall here. Looking forward to answering your questions.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you feel that Gov. Spitzer could have survived this scandal if he had had a more contrite and forgiving personality throughout his career as a prosecutor? Didn't he die by the sword that he killed so many others with?

Eric Dezenhall: Spitzer went down because his approach always was scorched earth. Despite how some people said the prostitution crime was minor, his entire moral authority was anchored in an uncompromising sense that all law violators must be punished ruthlessly. He never held a news conference and said "it's only mail fraud, so let him go." This is a guy who sent people to jail for mailing a letter. No way he could have survived.

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Yorktown, Va.: As Bill Clinton learned the hard way, sex scandals with young girls leave a stain. Will Spitzer always be a punch line, or can he be rehabilitated? As an heir to billions, does he care?

Eric Dezenhall: Spitzer can return in some other form. He can do cause-related work or run a business. I think he's a talented person who has a lot to offer the public, but he has lost his moral authority and likely never will be elected to anything major again. I find that the toughest thing that "catastrophically successful" clients face is losing their old status, which they desperately want back. Their lives are not over -- just their lives as they know them.

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Setauket, N.Y.: Would you agree with the decision of many political wives to stand by their husbands as they apologize to their constituency and their family for their moral failings? Would you advise the men to seek their wives' help at this time, or is this too big a favor to ask of a wife at this time, and should the men insist on speaking alone? Silda Wall Spitzer has ignited protests from many quarters about her standing by her husband. What's your opinion on the matter?

Eric Dezenhall: Women who marry politicians have signed on for a certain type of life and already have accepted their role in the public eye. Personally I always am amazed that these political wives stand by their husbands' sides when they apologize, but then again I can't relate to these types of marital arrangements. What I've found in representing high-profile figures is that they don't lead lives that resemble the rest of ours to begin with.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Are there comparisons and contrasts between how the Nixon administration handled the Watergate scandal and how the Clinton administration handled its impeachment scandal? If so, what are your observations?

Eric Dezenhall: In order to survive political crises you need two things: A principle to fight on, and allies. Clinton had a principle -- the visceral disapproval of the American public by what they saw as a right-wing prosecutor investigating someone's sex life, something none of us would want. Clinton also had political support, especially from women. Nixon had no principle to fight on, especially when it came out that he was lying. For a while he got away with the old "national security" argument, but that quickly evaporated. Spitzer also had no principle to fight on, largely because of his scorched-earth, law-and-order stance. He also had no allies. Some reporters compared Spitzer to Teddy Roosevelt; he was actually more like Michael Corleone, wiping out all of his enemies. Guess what? Enemies have brothers, and fellow politicians don't like to be treated like servants -- which is how Spitzer treated them.

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Washington: Hi Eric. I love your book, "Damage Control." Why do some companies/executives act like deer in headlights when they face a crisis? What kind of things can lowly communications people like me do to get my company to be ready for a crisis? Do you recommend companies having an "off-the-shelf" crisis plan in the case of something happening?

Eric Dezenhall: Companies make products or provide services, they don't manage crises. The people who attack them tend to be professional attackers. It's what they do. A corporation under attack is just a collection of individuals seeking self-preservation. No one sees it as being in their self-interest to defend the corporation, so they often just don't. I'm not a fan of crisis plans because crises can't be predicted; if given the choice between a good crisis plan and a good leader, have a good leader.

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Haddam, Conn.: Does the controversy over Barack Obama's pastor's comments through the years have the potential to sink his campaign? It seems like he's responding in a sensible way, but maybe too late, given how long the pastor has been expressing himself, loudly.

Eric Dezenhall: I think the Obama preacher scandal is a biggie. Obama has been this hybrid of JFK and MLK; he has been able to drill into the American psyche without hitting that volatile pipeline of the whole Chicago race/Farrakhan/race-baiting/anti-Semitic/anti-America/white conspiracy narrative -- until now. It simply is not plausible that Obama was a member of this church for 20 years and knew nothing about Wright's point of view. While Americans don't insist on what your religious beliefs should be, we know what they shouldn't be, and I believe the heartland will react with revulsion to Wright's behavior and won't let Obama off the hook for it. The thing is, though, that few people publicly will admit how revolted they are -- they'll just vote for Hillary. Hillary has been correct about the media's overall disinterest in digging too deep on Obama, but I think the honeymoon for him is over on this one.

In terms of what he should do, I think he has done some of the right things so far in terms of distancing himself, but it's not enough. I think he needs a JFK/West Virginia style speech about religion to characterize his ties to Wright better.

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Pensacola, Fla.: A pattern has developed where an official such as Spitzer, who has been accused of immoral conduct as opposed to a violation of criminal law, will ignore calls for their resignation. In this case, Spitzer was encouraged to "hand tough" by some of his closest advisors. His wife also is reported to have given him similar advice. Surely she will have given consideration to the consequences for their family? My question is, other than personal feelings of guilt and remorse, why do you think Spitzer resigned his position as governor of New York so quickly?

Eric Dezenhall: Spitzer probably resigned quickly because the feds had him dead-to-rights legally, and he knew he would have no political support given the ruthlessness of his prosecutions. Keep in mind that many people are under the impression that Spitzer prosecuted business crimes in court -- he didn't. The one case during his reign that he brought to trial, he lost. His modus operandi was to show up at a company, demand guilty pleas, the resignations of top management and massive fines. Companies would ask, "can he actually do this?" The answer was yes -- and he did. The math was all wrong for him on this.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Do you ever feel saddened, even shamed by the fact that your entire function is to manipulate public opinion in the interests of your clients? Otherwise put: Aren't you sometimes tempted to simply tell it like you know it really is?

Eric Dezenhall: I reject your premise. Your assumption is that everyone who comes under attack deserves to be attacked and that anyone who vigorously defends themselves from attack is doing something immoral. It is not immoral to defend yourself. It is your assumption of the automatic guilt of the accused that makes people like me necessary.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Could you explain how Spitzer could be so dumb and/or two-faced as to hire prostitutes several times? I fail to comprehend how he was thinking.

Eric Dezenhall: People who achieve what I like to call catastrophic success don't think the way the rest of us do. People keep asking what was Spitzer thinking? Wrong question. The right question is, what wasn't Spitzer thinking? The catastrophically successful have been rewarded their entire lives for acting on their impulses, whereas most of us are punished for acting on our impulses. The circuitry in the brain where there are feedback loops with reality never develop. Spitzer did what he did for the same reason why JFK Jr. went up in that plane under terrible conditions -- it never occurred to him, given his life experiences, that he couldn't fly.

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Paris: Do you think that maybe the media and the public are completely out of control? It sure looks to me like no one can be a public figure without being not just a saint but a god. One has to be absolutely perfect. I don't see that Spitzer really hurt anyone but himself and his own public image. His wife didn't even want him to resign. She didn't think it was as big of a deal as everyone else did.

Eric Dezenhall: The thirst for negative information about people and businesses is terrifying. The Internet makes things worse because nothing is vetted. To make matters worse, the mainstream media -- regardless of what they say -- do in fact read the blogs and traffic in the information they get on them. I don't see this going away anytime soon, because despite all the cries of "I'm sick of hearing about Britney" (and during Lewinsky "I'm sick of hearing about the president's sex life") the reality is that the public is very interested in Britney and the president's sex life.

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Washington: John McCain's team's handling of his wife Cindy's addiction to Percocet and Vicodin -- on top of theft from her charity -- seems textbook crisis management. Everyone felt sorry for her and forgot other issues at the time (e.g. Keating Five). Do you think that getting the story out first and quickly is the best approach? Any benefits to letting something lie in hopes that it will disappear or fade away? It would be tough to come out and highlight a problem if you really think it could fade.

Eric Dezenhall: When you inoculate against hostile coverage by getting it out before someone else does, it tends to take the sting out of future allegations, provided that what's being alleged isn't awful like Mrs. McCain's drug issues or President Bush's partying. When W ran for president he spoke about his alcoholism and his "wild days," but he didn't get into detail about drug use. At the time people said he should "fess up" to his drug use; he never did, and the story ultimately went away. I think that, had Bush gone into detail about his alleged cocaine use, it would have hurt him in his pursuit of the nomination. There does come a time when shutting up isn't such a bad idea. The media often say you're supposed to 'fess up to everything. Well, that's good for them, but not necessarily good for the target of their attacks.

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Prescott, Ariz.: So that David Vitter guy appears to have done everything that Eliot Spitzer did -- including the moralizing stuff (in fact I would put money on his prostitutes having crossed state lines from Virginia or Maryland into D.C., thus making him guilty of Mann Act violations as well) -- yet he was greeted with applause by his fellow Republican Senators when he cam back to work. What did he do that was right compared to Spitzer? Was this one of those "it's okay if you're a Republican" (IOKYAR) things?

Eric Dezenhall: It's all about Spitzer's entire pedigree being anchored in uncompromising law enforcement. Vitter wasn't a crusading attorney general who threw people in jail for even minor offenses. My theory about Larry Craig is that he survived in the Senate because the senators on the Judiciary Committee didn't see it as being in their self-interest to throw too much sunlight on sexual behavior, any more than the Senate was too eager to vote Clinton out of office. Glass houses and all that...

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Just outside the Beltway: Every once in a while, businesses find themselves dealing with a political crisis, particularly businesses that are regulated heavily by the federal government (see the Exxon Valdez, Tylenol or the entire tobacco industry, for examples). What lessons can businesses learn from politicians in managing crises that have a strong political variable?

Eric Dezenhall: Businesses need to learn that crises often are not communications problems but conflicts. Political crisis managers understand the existence of agendas. Businesses get all squirrelly when people talk about adversaries -- they believe it's all like marketing, where everybody is a "target audience." Marketing is essentially value neutral. If you're choosing between a Lexus and a Mercedes and go with the Mercedes, it doesn't mean you hate Japanese cars. In lots of corporate crises you are dealing with agendas that are not resolved by good communication -- as if it's all one big misunderstanding. Only recently have corporations come to better understand the existence of agendas and to embrace a political versus marketing model of communication.

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Savannah, Ga.: What role do you see crisis managers playing in balancing the public's interest vs. the client's? Is their loyalty only to the client, or does the public's right to know (for instance, about a public servant breaking the law) become a factor?

Eric Dezenhall: If your client is a politician, the public has a right to know. What has amazed me is how corporate clients get calls from journalists demanding proprietary information under the right-to-know aegis. The media don't necessarily have the right to know competitive information, not do they have the right to damage their targets. I told a friend of mine who is an entertainment journalist, who bemoaned how Jodie Foster hasn't "fessed up" to her alleged sexual preference, that he doesn't have the "right" to know that. Only in modern America would discretion be considered impudent or evidence of sneakiness.

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Pittsburgh: Now, I'm no fan of the Clintons -- they have had lots of fun scandals and I hope that we don't have to deal with them anymore -- but if you were advising Hillary, how would you have her deal with her the combo of past scandals, especially financial ones?

Eric Dezenhall: The Clintons are an aberration in the history of crisis management because they become stronger with attacks. The Clintons have been very successful in characterizing any attacks as being motivated by rabid, vicious right-wingers. It consistently works because the media tend to buy into the narrative that attacks on Democrats are right-wing dirty tricks. The funny thing is that Hillary has admitted, I believe, that one of her political touchstones was the late Chicago radical organizer and dirty-tricker Saul Alinsky, yet no one really has probed this. It doesn't occur to people that the Democrats have been amazingly effective political hardball players, yet it's Republicans who get the rap for "sliming" people. Well, Democrats "slime" people too. It took Bill Clinton's rather anemic remarks about Obama's campaign being a "fairy tale" to get reporters to recognize what many have known for years: Nobody plays rougher than the Clintons. But nobody cared until a candidate they liked got nailed by it.

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Anonymous: How do a 24-hour news cycle and information at the speed of light affect damage control? How do you get out in front when millions if not billions have this news in a blink of an eye? Throw in the U.S. citizens' attention deficit disorder, and it seems most minds are made up based on sound bites.

Eric Dezenhall: Twenty-four-hour news has changed everything, because now the media don't just cover the scandal, they cover how the subject is "handling" the scandal. Inevitably, the media will invite pundits on who almost always declare the crisis to have been "mishandled." Why? because, that's the story. I did a TV interview last year when JetBlue had all of those cancellations. The interviewer asked me "why is JetBlue in such a mess?" My answer was "Because every half hour you invite a guest on and ask them 'why is JetBlue in such a mess.' " The bad news is that the news cycles make it hard to respond in a way people would think was effective. The good news is that if you wait a couple of hours, Britney will have driven into a tree and knocked the story out of the news. I'm thinking of putting Britney on my payroll for just these contingencies.

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Baltimore: What do you think about the Fed's current actions on Wall Street, in light of what you say about crisis control in your book?

Eric Dezenhall: I don't know much about monetary policy, but I do find it strange that some people seem to think a recession is a PR problem. Communications is only one part of a crisis cocktail. It's not as though, if Bernanke used the right words and dressed in earth tones, he could knock out the recession. I'm amazed at the mystical powers our culture assigns to spin doctors when, in fact, things that often are attributed to spin have other explanations. So many Republicans attributed Clinton's survival during the Lewinsky scandal to diabolical spin control. It wasn't -- you had a likable president and a Dow Industrial Average at 10,000 for the first time in history. What's to impeach?

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Norfolk, Va.: Obama's response to the Wright and Rezko scandals seems to including having his staff play the victim card by crying racism while he stays above the fray with vague denials and blanket apologies. This might work in a Democratic primary where both sides are vying for victim status, but how will this play in the general election? Can Obama call this old news by then, even if the fawning media only covers it on Page 37?

Eric Dezenhall: Your assessment is correct -- I think the further Obama is from the presidency, the easier people will go on him because he's got such a great story. When people say they like Obama because he represents change, what they really mean is that they like his story. If he gets the nomination, it will be a lot tougher. One thing I always have admired about the Clintons is their capacity to endure. This is a life skill people don't seem to talk about. While Obama is a very impressive person, he has yet to endure the crucible. We don't know yet if he can take a punch. Sometimes the thing Americans really want to see is how well you "take it," which is why we put people through these awful campaigns.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I disagree with your earlier point that Tylenol faced an anti-Tylenol "agenda." They faced a homicidal maniac who was tampering with their product to hurt them. I always have thought the way they handled this nightmare scenario was fantastic -- total transparency, total focus on customer safety, and no circling the wagons defensively, because lives were on the line. Is this an exception to your "political" approach to corporate crisis management? I mean, what special interest could be favoring a lunatic killer in that case?

Eric Dezenhall: You misread me. Tylenol wasn't facing an agenda the way many companies are today. It is rather easy to get out of a "sniper" crisis when you're facing a maniac. While Tylenol handled their situation well, there's a lot of wrong information about this fabled case in my book. There is a myth that the company "immediately" recalled the product; wrong: It took eight days. There was not total transparency, and there were initial denials that there was cyanide in any of their plants, which there was. We also hear very little about the massive legal settlements of that case. Much of what has been taught about this case comes from "case studies" written by PR people looking to claim credit for the case. Fact is, while the company did a lot right, don't believe all of the legends. Like most crises, the truth is a lot messier. As they said in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

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Eric Dezenhall: Many thanks for the vigorous dialogue. I hope people found it interesting. Merry Crisis.

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