Top White House aides routinely turn their government service into elite jobs at public relations firms, promising to bring the lessons of politics to public affairs, issues management, and, most of all, crisis communications.
Why, then ? from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky to, now, the Bush Administration's scandal over who leaked the identity of CIA official Valerie Plame ? do they violate the most basic rules of crisis communications when they are still in the White House?
Well, for the same reason that corporate America violates those basic rules when faced with crisis. Pursued by law enforcement and the media, criticized by friend and foe alike, crisis-saddled parties lose all perspective. Rather than devise a long-term strategy for victory, they hunker down, focus on surviving each day, and hope the scandal will magically blow over.
In "Plame-gate," the Bush White House has performed worse than most, proving that even the most disciplined Administration in modern times can crack under the pressure of crisis. That this crisis cuts to the heart of Administration honesty and candor ? the traits around which President Bush and his aides built their political "brand" ? surely makes it even harder for the team at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to address the scandal with dispassionate effectiveness.
Let's take a closer look at "Plame-gate," which Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating for possible crimes tied to the public "outing" of Plame as a CIA official and possible perjury by White House aides who spoke to Fitzgerald. The Bush team's ineptitude provides lessons not just for future Presidents but also for executives in corporate suites in New York, foundation headquarters in Chicago, or non-profit offices in Los Angeles.
Here, then, are the basic rules of crisis communications that the Bush folks have muffed:
Tell the truth: At a news briefing in late 2003, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that top Bush aide Karl Rove had nothing to do with the leak, that the suggestion itself was "totally ridiculous." Now we know that, in a private conversation with TIME's Matt Cooper and maybe others, Rove discussed Plame's identity ? though we don't know whether he used her precise name. Whether Rove misled McClellan, or McClellan knew the truth but misled the nation anyway, someone clearly lied. The problem is, Americans have no reason to believe the White House any longer on "Plame-gate" ? or, worse, on anything else, such as the War in Iraq or the so-called crisis in Social Security.
Deliver a consistent message: Last year, Bush promised to fire anyone who leaked Plame's name. Recently, he promised merely to fire anyone who committed a crime. Well, the leak may or may not have been illegal, and no one will be convicted of a crime for years, if ever. Thus, when it comes to disciplining his staff, Bush raised the bar significantly, making clear that protecting his top aides is more important than sticking by his earlier commitment.
Deploy one key messenger: It's bad enough when the President shifts his stance on disciplining his people, or his top spokesman (the Press Secretary) gets the facts wrong. But add Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, whom the New Republic says has "flummoxed Washington's Fourth Estate with spin and legalisms," "embarrassed reporters" with his "cleverly worded denials," and "contradicted himself, sometimes within the same news article," and you've got a kitchen soup of messengers, none of whom the public has reason to trust.
Get it all out: Nothing keeps a crisis in the limelight more than the constant drumbeat of revelations (e.g., Rove talked about Plame; Bush raised the bar on firing his staff; and Fitzgerald is investigating Rove and Vice President Cheney's top aide, "Scooter" Libby, for possible perjury). Rather than tell the American people everything it knows, all at once, the White House is letting the media learn the details a piece at a time, keeping the story in the news and reporters on the hunt for more.
Fix the underlying problem: On Bush's watch, someone talked to the media about Plame, the Press Secretary misled the nation about Rove's role, and the Special Prosecutor suspects that top White House aides have not testified truthfully about what they did. Clearly, this White House hires staff and follows procedures that generate such results. Without a change, they will continue to do so. That's the underlying problem that now rests on Bush's desk.
Today's White House officials may be tomorrow's crisis managers in the private sector. But, today, they are providing a useful series of lessons for all of us on what not to do when you get in trouble.
Lawrence J. Haas is Senior Vice President and Director of Public Affairs at Manning Selvage & Lee.