The Role of Public Relations in Politics is a monthly column written by WWPR member Margaret Mulvihill, examining the role of PR in politics.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations
SCANDAL AND PANIC
Watching politicians panic when their careers begin to unravel has become a keenly observed global sport. We watch scandals unfold in real time on prime time television. We read the online ‘insider’ scoops and the newsprint. In their panic, the damaged ones turn to their agency of record to begin the daunting task of damage limitation and mitigation. Few politicos think ahead to a crisis situation. The evidence shows that they wait until something happens! Crisis management should be in the PR portfolio of any individual politician or organization. In reality, it rarely is. Also rare is the PR shop that provides a dedicated crisis management team as part of its regular portfolio.
We have all seen organizations brought to their knees. Sometimes it is a mistake made by one individual, but more often than not it is a flawed, top-down management strategy. It would be very interesting to know how many politicians and organizations have a budgeted line-item for crisis management. Today, something that happened 20, 30, even 40 years ago, is likely to be dredged up to become fodder for the networks. Indeed, the changing face of the news reporting community increases the need for all to have access to a crisis management specialist in a hurry.
Media specialists abound. We have image management and image enhancement specialists. People who write press releases and strategically place favorable news items about their clients. We have folks who dedicate their careers to message crafting and folks who make sure the messaging is constantly, favorably, updated and always ‘on point’. And that is great. We all need to be groomed for media exposure, not just politicos and their organizations. Every team should have a crisis management specialist assigned to it, someone whose job it is to seek out any potential issues or problems and neutralize them before we are reading about it in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The biggest PR-fail story so far this year has been the disintegration of the Presidential hopes of New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie. A former prosecutor, he now finds himself at the hub of a large group of unhappy subpoena recipients. The public relations effort to bring closure to the daily leaks and allegations of wrong-doing has been spotty to say the least. If the Governor has an outside PR representation, he has clearly not been making use of their talents during ‘Bridgegate’.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems feasible that this whole scandal could have been avoided had the proper crisis management plans been in place. There is no disagreement that ‘Bridgegate’ happened. There is disagreement and much discussion in print, online, radio and television media as to whether or when Governor Christie was aware of the traffic lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. A good PR crisis manager would have stepped in immediately and advised the Governor to admit that ‘Bridgegate’ did happen. He would have advised that Governor Christie takes full accountability at his press conference, rather than doling out the blame as he did on various staffers.
Had the Governor simply accepted responsibility for ‘Bridgegate’ with a short, on-point message to the press and public, it is entirely possible that the story would have ended there. He did not, and it did not. During his overly lengthy presser, the Governor gave the gathered reporters and columnists much food for thought and leads for stories. Angry staffers gave insider information to favored reporters. Reporters started digging. One lead after another turned up more and more problems for the Christie administration.
Now, six months after the event, we are still talking about the Governor’s deeply flawed administration. Investigations are ongoing, both at state and federal level. It is extremely unlikely that Governor Christie will be a Presidential nominee in 2016, and it is entirely possible that he may not serve out his term as Governor of New Jersey. In this instance, the role of public relations in politics is clear – a good crisis management specialist was desperately needed.
Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawsonmulvihill