Crisis without Management: Virginia Gov’s Disastrous News Conference

A stoic spouse alongside a public figure accused of impropriety typically is perceived as an act of loyalty and faith in her partner’s ability to transcend circumstance. In this case, Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam acted as crisis manager. The governor could have used one.

Some politicians believe they can master the message better than practitioners who excel in reputation management or media ethicists who know the right thing to do during crisis management.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tried to restore his reputation in an impromptu news conference following disclosure of a 1984 yearbook photo showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan headdress.

At first Northam acknowledged that he was one of the two figures in the photo. Then he called a news conference in which he walked back that acknowledgement, stating he wasn’t in the photo. He would have remembered that, he said–and here is where he imploded in front of media–because he used shoe polish in a dance competition in which he impersonated Michael Jackson.

It gets worse.

When a reporter asked if he could still moon walk, the governor appeared ready to do just that. Fortunately, his wife Pamela Northam–an educator and environmentalist–intervened, informing him that such a display would be inappropriate, given the circumstances.

A long list of politicians and public figures have called for Northam’s resignation. The governor said won’t resign and can repair the damage, even though he violated just about every tenet of effective crisis management.

Living Media Ethics contains a chapter discussing proactive public relations during crisis management.

The Forbes Agency Council also has published golden rules of crisis management, proposing steps to take during professional, personal or political upheavals. Among them are:

  • Take Responsibility: “First off, don’t try to cover up the PR crisis, it will only worsen the damage.”
  • Be Proactive, Be Transparent, Be Accountable: Acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize.
  • Get Ahead Of The Story: Apologize quickly and concisely using social media and other venues and then retreat to figure out strategy.
  • First Apologize, Then Take Action: Do something substantial to show you are changing and moving forward ethically.
  • Monitor, Plan And Communicate: Never “go rogue and potentially fuel the flames.”
  • Listen To Your Team First:  “Don’t comment, post or tweet before you’ve conferred with your PR team on what the best, most reasoned approach will be.”
  • Turn Off The Fan: “Don’t fuel the fire.” Step back, put yourself in your constituent’s shoes. Ask, “How would I feel if this happened to me? Looking in the mirror is the best PR advice there is when dealing with crisis situations. It ensures we do the right thing. And right beats spin every time.”
  • Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions: “Be sure that the first external communication following the crisis is a well-thought-out response.”

Northam refused to take responsibility or be accountable.  While he apologized immediately after the photos were publicized, he deepened the crisis by retracting that acknowledgement, saying he wasn’t in the photo and blaming the yearbook’s editing staff for putting the racist depiction on his page. Then he went rogue in a 40-minute news conference that fueled the fire, admitting he did do blackface in the same year as the yearbook photo was taken.

The inept disclosures indicated he lacked more than a PR crisis management team and a strategic response. He appeared to lack a conscience ready to accept consequences for his actions.

By violating basic tenets of effective public relations, Northam failed to look in the mirror to see how his past and present actions harmed others; instead, he looked into a future that included his resignation and didn’t like what he saw.

After the news conference debacle, the governor only has a few more steps to take: He should resign and then go about salvaging what is left of his reputation by meeting with groups and constituents he offended. He also should work in transition with Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become acting governor if Northam were to resign.

If that happened, Fairfax would be the state’s second African-American governor. That outcome would be best for everyone involved.

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