I got so much hate mail when I wrote about some of the very smart efforts of the Bush PR machine a few years ago--as though people thought I was being pejorative by asserting that their communications were strategic or effective, as if this somehow undermined the administration's actual achievements.
Long ago, I worked in the private sector with numerous members of the senior staff in the original Bush administration. So that reader reaction was silly to me. No matter what I or anyone else thinks about this administration, I have a ton of respect for the people who have to do its bidding with the press, and the only thing I'm writing about here is their PR machine's practices.
This is why I'm sending out a little cyber band-aid to those poor folks, because their vice president really left them hanging last week.
Forget about the careless hunting implications (and I'm an avid hunter, so that's tough). What Dick Cheney did to the White House press team, let alone the electorate, is no worse than what any of the jailbird CEO's of the past few years did to their colleagues or shareholders.
Think about it--the shooting took place around 5 p.m. on a Saturday night. Once Harry Whittington (the victim) was safely in the hospital and out of seemingly immediate danger, any communications strategist would lead his or her strategy with message control.
Grab the story now on Saturday night -- the only time in the week when there is no news cycle. Project full accountability. Take the blame and humanize it the way Mr. Cheney did with Brit Hume a few days later, after Mr. Whittington's unfortunate heart attack.
When it was too late.
The Vice President never gave them a chance to exercise these basic tenets, however. Nobody from the White House press team was in Texas, so the Vice President's party, according to reports, did not call them until Sunday--after their host had called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Think you've ever been blindsided by your boss? Try that one on for size.
Why does this matter for our business? Here's some free advice. More than 60 percent of those of you who are C-Level execs will face some major corporate crisis in your careers. Whether you're working with internal strategists or $20K/month corporate communications professionals, the first thing they will tell you when a problem arises is that you have to account for it. The idea is not to take blame (as any of the lawyers in the room will announce immediately). The idea is to avoid the perception of deflection. It's not to apologize, necessarily. It's to assert control of the perception.
By owning the event, the story cycle ends. By deflecting the event, or denying it (as previous presidents have), the "Spin Cycle" begins. This is what makes relatively little stories, like RNC break-ins and campaign wiretapping, become Watergate.
"Being the bigger man" seems terribly hard for most men, unfortunately. Sorry for the patriarchal terms. But, magnanimity seems in even shorter supply than chivalry these days. The poor White House Press team --and the American electorate--deserve better.
Getting back to you C-Level types; when that big crisis hits and your $20K/month corporate communications professionals double their rates in the spirit of "crisis billing," bank on them telling you one thing first, if they're any good.
Whatever happened, own it. Humanize it. That's the only way you'll ever be able to make it go away. If you're forthright, you won't have to worry so much about the spin.