This year’s communication turkeys

Turkey is the food commonly associated with Thanksgiving. It’s also sometimes used colloquially to describe foolishness or ineptitude. And with that holiday (my favorite one of the year!) coming tomorrow, it’s an appropriate time to look at this year’s biggest turkeys in communication and public relations:

Penn State University: I don’t think there is any doubt that they are this year’s biggest turkey, the way British Petroleum was last year for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon accident. The alleged crimes committed by former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky are abominable, horrible and sickening. But university officials, including the school’s iconic football Head Coach, Joe Paterno, made this situation far worse by creating the perception that they cared more about winning games and preserving the Penn State brand than doing right by the alleged victims. If you believe the grand jury report in the case, these crimes were taking place as far back as 1998, and Sandusky was caught in the act by a graduate assistant in 2002, yet no one from the school went to the police, Sandusky was allowed to remain associated with the program and the victims – innocent children – continued to be cast aside until the indictment was finally handed down this month and it had to go public. And even then Paterno and others at the school only admitted to the vaguest responsibility. Then you have Paterno’s press release that said the school’s Boards of Trustees “shouldn’t waste one more minute discussing him,” the protests on campus that followed Paterno’s firing and everything else.

Herman Cain: I discussed this in a previous post. But his poor handling of the sexual harassment accusations against him, particularly how he changed his story multiple times, violated multiple cardinal rules of crisis communication practice. His campaign, which at one point had vaulted him into the lead in the polls in the Republican Primary race for President, was starting to slide before the allegations. But these allegations and his poor handling of them may have finished him off. Politicians have survived much worse than sexual harassment charges, so if Mr. Cain had simply handled the crisis properly, this would have been far less of a mess.

 

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY): Former Rep. Weiner’s story is sadly similar to Cain’s. The Congressman from New York City was caught texting pictures of his…um…male anatomy to a woman who wasn’t his wife. Rather than just admit the misdeed completely immediately and apologize (again, politicians have survived far worse), Weiner at first denied the story, then only grudgingly admitted to facts as they were reported by others. He lost control of the story and came across as a liar in addition to a fiend. He was eventually pressured into resigning, ending what could have been a promising political career (he had been speculated as a possible candidate for Mayor of New York City).

Jim Tressel: In the span of a few months, Jim Tressel went from one of the greatest football coaches in Ohio State history and someone on the fast track to the College Football Hall of Fame to resigning in disgrace. And all because he knew of NCAA violations in his program and didn’t tell the truth to his superiors and NCAA investigators. It wasn’t until Sports Illustrated came out with a report detailing a slew of NCAA violations that Tressel finally came clean, and by then it was too late. Now the program that won seven Big Ten titles, nine of 10 meetings with archrival Michigan, four BCS bowls and a national championship under his watch is disgraced, and so is Tressel. Like so many college coaches, he preached doing things the right way but sacrificed that principle in the name of winning football games. And that gambit ultimately failed, as it usually does.

Do you have any other examples of communications turkeys?

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

Cases of poor crisis communication: Herman Cain

Crisis communication is never a pleasant experience. And good crisis communication is particularly challenging these days when Social Media and the web further reduces how much time one has to get out in front of a story.

But one thing you should definitely not do in a crisis is what Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain did this week: change his story multiple times.

On Sunday evening, the political website Politico reported complaints that Cain sexually harassed two employees while leading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. The Associated Press reported a third complaint on Wednesday.

Cain is hardly the first Presidential candidate to be ensnared in a scandal involving the opposite gender. And while sexual harassment is certainly unacceptable, politicians have survived worse (see Bill Clinton). But Cain didn’t help himself by changing the story he presented to the media so frequently it was hard to keep track.

Here is the timeline of Cain’s “explanations,” as assembled by TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall:

  1. Cain claimed the Politico report was false.
  2. Cain admitted that there were allegations, but that the allegations were false.
  3. There were allegations, but they were false and he didn’t know what money was paid (how could he not know that if he were in charge of the organization?)
  4. He didn’t know whether money was paid and that it would be wrong to find out if money was paid because that is confidential (see #3)
  5. He was cleared by an in-depth investigation but didn’t know anything about it.
  6. Finally explaining the gesture that led to the complaint and admitting that he remembered discussing a settlement figure.

By changing his story so many times, he kept the story in the news longer than it may have needed to be. Had he simply responded quickly to the Politico report with a detailed explanation of what happened and stuck by that story (and assuming that that story held up factually), he could have gotten this story out of the headlines after a day or two. Even with the first Presidential primaries still two months away, there would have been plenty of news (political and otherwise) to take its spot. And if voters can forgive Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and lying under oath, they certainly could have forgiven  Herman Cain for a sexual harassment charge that may not even be truthful.

Instead, it became a major scandal that has been in the headlines all week. And that’s not a good thing for an public figure or organization in a crisis.

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