Over the course of my career I’ve worked for dozens of election campaigns, interest groups and some major corporations. In every single one of those efforts, crisis management proved critical.
Many of the principles I’ve leaned on in my work were taught during my time at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington D.C. For years I’ve implemented these and their worth has been validated time and again.
Given the current environment around truth and political campaigns, practitioners should spend some time reinforcing these with their staff.
Lesson 1: Don’t Allow Your Message to Get Lost in Crisis
If people are quick to believe rumors and alleged scandals about your candidate, it may mean that as a campaign or organization, you haven’t spread enough good news. This is one of the reasons why new candidates, who are not well-defined in the public eye, are vulnerable to rumor and scandal. The best inoculation strategy against a possible crisis is to first ensure your campaign has a forward-looking message and is effectively communicating it.
Lesson 2: Get the Facts Quickly
At the center of a crisis is usually an accusation or (alleged) scandal. I have experienced clients of mine being accused of things such as corruption, womanizing, alcohol addiction, doubtful alliances, inside deals, overpriced projects or other illegal activity. Once a crisis breaks (and you’re at the point of no return), it’s important to get the facts and to get them as fast as possible. As a consultant, I have to know the brutal truth. It’s like walking in a labyrinth. If you take a wrong turn at the beginning, everything that follows will be wrong as well.
Lesson 3: Don’t React Defensively
In many cases, the accused person gets into defense mode and instinctively denies the accusation. While this is a very human reaction, it often makes things worse. Sometimes, it’s the instant lying which triggers the real problem.
Lesson 4: Carefully Plot Your Communications Strategy
In each crisis, we have to distinguish between a legal strategy and a communications strategy. Lawyers usually want to say as little as possible and depending on the case, that may be the smart thing to do. But a legal strategy is not a communications strategy. Understand that “no comment” can be perceived as an admission of guilt. Lawyers should therefore never write the press statement alone (this one revisits me periodically).
Lesson 5: Acknowledge the 24-Hour News Cycle
Politicians often think that the media is out to get them. Sometimes they do wage campaigns against certain personalities and in those cases, it is best to reply through a different media channel. But we shouldn’t forget that the competition for news is as fierce as the competition for votes. In the old days, the news cycle was much slower. Nowadays, it’s almost non-stop.
Lesson 6: It’s Ok to Fight Back
No one has to absorb more insults and more abuses of privacy rights than people in politics and depending on the situation, it’s ok to fight back. In many countries (like Switzerland, for example) the legal setting to do this is actually rather favorable. If the accusations are wrong, then one should show proof in order to deal with the crisis.
Lesson 7: Understand When to Come Clean
Nowadays, it has become very difficult to just sit out a crisis. If the accusations are true, it is the best strategy (with respect to communication, not legally speaking) to admit mistakes and accept responsibility. The faster you do this, and the more completely you do it, the more people are willing to forgive. This is not the time to blame others, but to promise concrete action in order to put the crisis to rest.
It’s important for campaigns to understand that not everything is a scandal or a crisis. Accordingly, a campaign, organization or corporation doesn’t have to answer each and every post, tweet or accusation.
One cautionary example from my own experience: a campaign team was so obsessed with an accusation spread over radio that it spent enormous amounts of time strategizing about how to defend against it and what the message should be. They did all of this before even getting data back on the impact of the accusation. As it turned out, focus group research showed that voters who had heard the accusation weren’t impacted by it, and many didn’t even know about it.
Dr. Louis Perron is a political consultant based in Switzerland. He has helped more than two dozen candidates and parties in various countries win elections. His clients include two presidents as well as numerous cabinet members, senators, governors and mayors