How could Anthony Weiner have survived his sexting scandal? What could Mitt Romney have done to destroy talk of the "47 percent"? And does Kobe Bryant have something to teach Tiger Woods?
Democratic crisis management specialist Chris Lehane, former spokesman for the Bill Clinton family during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, spoke with Yahoo News for a "Q and A" about some of the notorious scandals in recent political history. He is co-author of a new book, "Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control," which is out this week.
Below are excerpts from that interview:
Q: What are some key rules for getting out of a major crisis?
A: There are three overarching principles of survival. The first one is: Do no harm. When you find yourself in a difficult spot, the first and most important thing to do is make sure you don't make it a worse situation. Secondly, you need to have some discipline-- you need to think through 'what do I need to do to help get myself out of the situation I am in' and have the discipline to really stick to the plan. Which takes me to the third key principle of survival, which is at the end of the day, people understand that bad things happen and they evaluate you by whether you are a trustworthy person—can you be trusted going forward? And so the third principle of survival is really credibility.
Q: What are people going to find out about the Anthony Weiner case if they read your book? (Weiner, a New York Democrat, resigned his House seat in 2011 after admitting sending sexually charged texts to women he met online.)
A: Anyone who reads the book and our section on Anthony Weiner is going to come away realizing this is a very, very eminently survivable crisis. It was highly embarrassing, it was a problematic issue, but it was one where he could certainly have survived it if he had followed some of the basic rules, namely that when you're in a situation like this, you have to fully disclose. He would have been far better off coming clean at the very beginning, apologizing, saying it was inappropriate, but obviously making clear that this didn't involve any actual physical activity or any appropriate conduct other than being really dumb and sending around stuff that he should not have sent around on Twitter.
Q: Give us an example of someone who has come clean and emerged better off for it?
A: In the book we draw a comparison between the Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant situations. The Kobe Bryant one was much, much more serious. Kobe was looking at a criminal prosecution. What Kobe was able to do fairly early on in his crisis was get up there in a press conference with his wife and acknowledge that he had an inappropriate affair-- he drew a line between the affair and the conduct that was being alleged and by doing that he gave himself the opportunity to pivot. People saw that he was being straightforward about what he was acknowledging. You compare that to Tiger Woods, who went four or five months before he ultimately held a press conference and addressed the issue. And in that time period, we saw one of the great international brands in the world basically collapse. And Kobe-- while his brand certainly took a hit, a significant hit-- by the end of that year and into the next year he was still one of the leading endorsers in the NBA.
Q: Do you think it's difficult for the public to view these figures as human? Do you share some of those human elements in the book?
A: Some of the stuff that we do get into deals with the human element, the need to be disciplined amid the fog of the crisis. The fog of a crisis is that typically, people who are very smart, very talented, when they are in a crisis somehow they lose their common sense. That's also a function of the emotions getting into it.
Q: Are there public figures you write about whose emotions made situations worse?
A: You just mentioned the Weiner example, and look, I don't know this, but I think in a lot of situations where there's a spouse involved, someone may potentially just not want to do what would be a smart approach because they're very concerned about how it may impact their spouse and their family relationships. And without going into details, because there's some confidentiality issues, I can certainly say we've had a variety of cases where people ended up taking a situation and making it much more difficult.
Q: Did you see any major political gaffes of 2012 that you believe could have been mitigated had they been handled differently?
Q: Campaigns in particular lend themselves to crises. Mitt Romney's comments on the 47 percent and how he handled his tax returns, both of those ended up being crises for him because how he handled them ended up creating a significant shift of trust from the very voters he needed to get to be able to win.
Q: It would seem from your rules you would have advised Romney to get out in front of the tax return issue. But how would you have advised him to handle the "47 percent" comment?
A: There had to be some sensitivity to who your core audience was and also recognition that you needed to hold your head high and just acknowledge that you had said something that was a mistake. His first answer out of the box was an effort to parse the language, but he effectively doubled down on the basic point that he was making that almost half the country didn't count. A couple days later he got that question in a television interview and he answered it the right away. The only problem was, it was about a week later and it was the second answer, not the first answer.
Q: Do you think that technology and social media make crises worse?
A: I think we live in an age of crises. Social media allows people to actually engage and participate in the dissemination of information and be news creators themselves. The "47 percent" video possibly came from a caterer or a bartender at an event who happened to have a flip phone and suddenly that person arguably played a more important role in the presidential campaign than anybody out there.