Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren fumbled news that she'd claimed ethnic minority status at Harvard Law School. When the press is all bad, here's how you can turn it around.
Consider the possibility that bad news comes out about you or your organization. Maybe it's a story you should have anticipated. Maybe it's something you never could have predicted.
What next? Here's a textbook case of what you shouldn't do, followed by some great advice from a leading crisis public-relations professional. It's worth a few minutes reviewing, just in case. Far better to have the strategy in your back pocket and not need it, than to need and not have it!
Just ask Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate challenging Senator Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts. Late last month, the Boston media revealed that Warren claimed ethnic minority status at Harvard Law School in the 1980s and 1990s. Her claim was, shall we say, marginal. By her own account, she's 1/32 Cherokee.
Shifting explanations and a refusal to deal with the revelations, and perhaps worst of all—no disciplined response—have turned what might have been a one-day news story into a significant issue for her and her campaign.
"It's gone on several days. Every day spent on this subject is not spent on why Scott Brown should be replaced. It's a major distraction," a Massachusetts Democratic consultant, Dan Payne, told Politico.
So if Warren is fast becoming a case study in how not to handle an unflattering revelation, what's the right way to do it? We asked Jamie Diaferia, founder of Infinite Public Relations in New York City, which often handles crisis PR cases for law firms and other clients, for advice.
Here are his top five tips—not just for political candidates, but for leaders in any field:
1. Be prepared. Anticipate the hard questions you're going to be asked and have answers ready beforehand. If you're a political candidate, expect questions about the immature things that you did when you were young. "Anyone preparing to enter the public stage needs to embrace the reality that their dirty laundry will always—well, come out in the wash," Diaferia says. "Always."
2. Move quickly. It used to be hard to outrun a negative news story; now it's impossible. "The Boston Herald's initial article breaking this story ran on April 27," Diaferia points out. "We're still talking about it. In units of Internet days, this story has been going on for six months."
3. Tell the truth. Seriously, how many times do we need to revisit this lesson? The coverup kills you more often than the crime itself. "As soon as the news breaks, rip off the Band-Aid" Diaferia advises. "Provide a plausible story. Then stick with it. Having facts to back up your story is a pleasant bonus."
4. Pick a spokesperson. Once you've decided on your response is, have one person–and one person only–deliver it to the media, Diaferia says. "The only thing worse than providing a bad response is having someone else deliver a different bad response on your behalf."
5. Deflect and redirect. "Put on your Wonder Woman bracelets and deflect the story by telling the media what the real real issue is," Diaferia suggests. "Even if the story being told about you is the real issue. It can't hurt to try, anyway."
Bill Murphy Jr.: is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with John Burgstone), and is a former reporter for The Washington Post. @BillMurphyJr