My graduate course in crisis management was the 2012 Republican presidential primaries as a senior advisory and national media surrogate for Newt Gingrich. Not only did I survive the week leading up to the South Carolina primary, but my sister Kathy and I were both commended by several national press correspondents on election night, before the returns came in, for our highly professional and highly effective week in crisis communications. We won the South Carolina primary.
You have to personally live through a media firestorm to fully appreciate it. I have, and I do. What I learned is that the only way to successfully navigate the firestorm is to be truthful, credible, knowledgeable and available to the media. The White House is in the middle of several firestorms.
The three firestorms are the administration's communications subsequent to the attack in Benghazi last fall, the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press staff phone records without notice.
President Obama weighed in on Benghazi this past Monday during a press conference, stating, "The day after it happened, I acknowledged that it was an act of terrorism."
The next day, Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post gave Obama's comment four Pinocchios. Not truthful. Obama also noted at the same press conference that "there's no there there" regarding Benghazi. Not credible.
Regarding the IRS targeting conservative groups, Obama at the same press conference Monday noted that he found out about the IRS actions Friday, May 10. Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman and Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller learned about the program in May 2012. Not knowledgeable.
The Justice Department has stood by its seizure of the Associated Press' phone records, asserting that it did everything else it could and referring to an inability to comment in detail due to an ongoing investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from the investigation, which is being run by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which represents 50 various news organization, released a letter on Tuesday, noting: "In the 30 years since the department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review. The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press." This is potentially the most important and flammable firestorm, as it impacts the ability of reporters to report on what is happening.
"It goes back to the importance of confidential sources," Cynthia Counts, a First Amendment lawyer, wrote in an email. "All you have to think about is Nixon and Watergate, and the need for reporters to be able to rely on anonymous sources is obvious." Why might this seizure of phone records hinder free speech?
"Any disclosure of confidential or unpublished sources and information inherently results in a 'chilling effect' on the free flow of information," Counts wrote, "and the public's right to know. People who have important information, but fear retaliation, will not talk to reporters if they cannot be certain their disclosure and identities are confidential." Again, based on my experience, the best crisis management is to be credible, truthful and available to the media.
So far, this administration is falling far behind in crisis communication. Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" regarding the seizure of phone records and the IRS: "I think this is just the beginning, and the whole idea of comparing this with Nixon, I really think is just, it doesn't make much sense. But the president has to come forward and share why he did not alert the press they were going to do this. He has to tell Americans, including me: What was this national security question? You just can't raise the flag and expect to salute it every time without any reason, and the same thing applies to the IRS."
Being compared to Nixon from a scandal perspective is probably not the goal of the White House communications team. So the question remains: Are they terribly inept, or can they not be truthful, credible, knowledgeable and available to reporters for another reason?