President Obama and his insular team are violating almost every principle of crisis management. Shoot straight. Ditch the spin. Don't feed the fire. Restore trust.
While the West Wing is run by smart and dedicated public servants, their crisis-communications instincts are horrible. They dissemble. They make things worse. They undermine the administration’s credibility.
Events of the past week likely will lead to one or more long-running scandals, which would be unfortunate for anybody, including me, who wants Obama to succeed. He needs to set aside his (oft-justified) contempt for Republicans and the media, acknowledge his team’s failings, and brace his administration for an onslaught. He may need a new team.
Obama should place a call to former Democratic President Clinton who survived multiple scandals (both self-inflicted and fueled by overzealous Republicans), with the help of an extraordinary crisis-management team. Two Clinton aides, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, cowrote a book called “Master of Disaster” that Obama might want to read.
"Crisis is a constant state of nature in our Information Age. And in the modern spin cycle, whether you are a business protecting a brand, a public figure guarding your image, or that guy in the cubicle defending your reputation, if you do not fight back—even after a short, nasty, or brutish experience—you will no longer have your brand, your image, or your reputation," they wrote.
This doesn’t mean hunker down. That is the mistake Obama's team made on Benghazi, minimizing terrorists’ role in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack and misleading reporters for months about the involvement of the State Department and the White House in spinning the story.
The original and legitimate purpose of the Benghazi investigation – whether the United States could have done anything to prevent the deaths of four Americans – got consumed by a self-inflicted debate over White House credibility.
This doesn’t mean intimidate naysayers. That is the apparent intent of the Justice Department's unprecedented seizure of telephone records linked to more than 100 Associated Press reporters. The administration might call the seizure a legitimate attempt to punish people who leaked classified information that undermines U.S. security. Leak-busters in past White Houses used similar justification.
But if history is a guide, the probe sends a chilling message to whistle-blowers armed with information that might embarrass the president: We’re watching you.
The development most likely to consume Obama’s second term is news that the IRS targeted conservative political groups. The action has been condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike as a potential abuse of power, with soft echoes of Watergate.
Internal Revenue Service officials knew about the activity for months and lied about it, telling Congress that there was no targeting. As with Benghazi, the White House has not apologized for the deception. Obama weakly argued that the IRS is an independent agency.
The Washington Post reported today that IRS officials in Washington were involved with targeting conservatives, contrary to agency claims that the effort was limited to a Cincinnati office.
There is no suggestion that anybody with the White House or the president’s reelection campaign played a role, which would be Obama’s nightmare scenario. Congressional investigators and perhaps even a special prosecutor will determine how far this goes.
That brings me back to the two Democrats who literally wrote the book on scandal management. (Disclosure: I covered the Clinton White House and frequently dealt with both Lehane and Fabiani.) While we had our share of tussles, I benefited from their strategy to selectively leak information, at times damaging to Clinton. The tactic gave them some measure of control over the story (when it would break and what reporter would cover it) and, according to their book, generated for their client the single most important commodity in a crisis: trust.
"In the Information Age, knowledge is power. In a crisis, when it comes to earning credibility, accurate information is the coin of the realm," they write. "Short of releasing information that could generate the equivalent of a death penalty for your organization (in which case, you are probably well beyond help), no matter how bad the information may be, packaging and releasing such negative information is among the most powerful ways to restore trust."
In a telephone interview for a December book review, Lehane told me that politicians are serving at a time in U.S. history when the public has little faith in institutions like the presidency and Congress. “That is ultimately what is at the heart of the crisis. People are challenging your credibility. You have to recognize it. You have to face up to it,” Lehane said. “You're not going to spin your way out of it.”
His book tells people faced with scandal to stop spinning, to shoot straight, and to restore your credibility through full disclosure. Lehane told me today, "Effective crisis communications is all about telling the truth the right way." It's not too late for the Obama White House.