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June 7, 2011
Crisis Communications Done Wrong
As a crisis communications consultant, here’s one thing I can say with certitude about the Congressman Anthony Weiner situation. Weiner’s handling of this scandal has been a botched case from day one and his media advisors should be fired.
Originally, Weiner tried to dismiss the story, telling reporters that the tweet from his account showing a picture of his bulging boxers to a pretty female college student was nothing more than a prank and he was going to focus on his work. Nice try, but it doesn’t work like that with reporters. Hiding the story only makes reporters hungrier and if there is a political scandal brewing with an “up and coming” politician – complete with photo- reporters will pursue it to break news.
Apparently, Weiner got the message a few days later because he decided to go on a nine-hour speaking tour with the media. It’s a good start, but he was woefully unprepared. He couldn’t even answer the most basic question: is that you in the picture?
Lesson #1: If you’re in the middle of a scandal and you fear it will make news, you better prepare yourself for the tough questions. In Weiner’s case, he didn’t even prepare for the easy questions. Don’t mince words when framing your argument because it will only make you look guilty. If you’re innocent, be clear and concise with your denial. Speak with words people will understand. If you’re guilty and you have a lot at stake to lose, then consider hiring a professional crisis consultant to manage your message. It’s always easier to manage the message before the narrative has been written.
Lesson #2: Don’t go after reporters. It is their job to ask the tough questions and if you don’t like it, tough luck. Reporters and producers have strong personalities so don’t try to challenge them as Weiner did when he called a CNN producer a “jackass” for asking a tough question during a press conference. The purpose of a media interview is to court viewers and readers into your corner, not to alienate them. If you come across as haughty or angry, you have already lost the battle over image.
Lesson #3: Don’t crack jokes to downplay the story, like Weiner did. He did several interviews and seemed to come up with every kind of sexual innuendo that suggested where his mind was. In one interview, Weiner said this Twitter scandal wasn’t a national security threat: “I'm not sure it rises — no pun intended — to that level." For those who suspected Weiner had a dirty mind, he just reinforced it with his words.
Lesson #4: Don’t delay a response. Weiner made the mistake of believing that if he ignored the problem it would go away. If the story is salacious, the media will pursue it at all costs. If you go into hiding, reporters will find you and ask questions when you are least prepared to answer them. In Weiner’s case, a reporter for a local TV station arrived unannounced at his office on Capitol Hill, trying to get answers. But rather than answering questions, his staff called the Capitol Hill police. This is why you need to always get in front of the story. If a crisis situation is beginning to brew, consider releasing it before the story breaks. Or in Weiner’s case, answer the calls on the first day, not several days later.
Lesson #5: Don’t lie. Originally, Weiner said his account was hacked but he didn’t want to go to police. That’s possible, but here’s another take. If he lied to police about his account being hacked, this would have turned into a criminal act for filing a false report. In 2010, I was the Communications Director for a Congressional challenger when my personal email account was hacked. It quickly became a criminal investigation that involved the NYPD crimes division with detectives quizzing me on lots of personal information. I had nothing to hide, so I answered the questions without fear of reprisal. What did Weiner do? He hired an attorney and clammed up, which reinforces the image that he doesn’t want to answer the tough questions.
I can’t predict the future, but I am willing to make a wager on this scandal. I’m going on the record now, predicting that more pictures will soon surface with Weiner in uncompromising photos. Why? Weiner admitted he couldn’t say “with certitude” whether that was him in the picture. I think he is leaving himself some wiggle room just in case more pictures of himself —complete with his Weiner smile — surface on the Internet.

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Mark Macias is the co-founder of BigBirdFans.com. He produces social media videos for all kinds of clients and consults on publicity campaigns. You can read more at www.MaciasPR.com.

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