After Al Gore's sobering defeat in his bid for the White House, consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane decided to use their legal and PR expertise to resuscitate beleaguered corporations. By Julia Hood.Any reporter writing about Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani will invoke the nickname that became attached to them during the Whitewater investigation of the Clintons: Masters of Disaster. It's just not possible to avoid it. The two were most recently in the national spotlight during Al Gore's bid for the Presidency, with Fabiani serving as deputy campaign manager for communications and strategy and Lehane as campaign press secretary. Now Lehane and Fabiani, following the closest election in history that saw their candidate defeated, have redirected their expertise to the corporate world. Given the pair's reputation for tackling the unpleasant and the controversial, one might expect corporate leaders to shy away from a connection with them. But it is clear that many companies find their need for high-level counsel outweighs any negative association. "Given their specialty and their notoriety, when they get brought in, the client is usually in more trouble to get out of than into," says Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton, now CEO of Grassroots Enterprises. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, who penned a detailed account of Gore's campaign communications strategy, says the two don't shy away from the fame, but offer tangible advantages to corporations. "They certainly enjoy their 'Masters of Disaster' notoriety, and in politics these days, having a high-profile consultant is becoming par for the course," Kurtz says in an e-mail. "The Lehane/Fabiani approach to spin may be a little more difficult in the corporate world, but most businesses can benefit from media strategy and crisis management, especially in these days of corporate scandals." For obvious reasons, Lehane and Fabiani will not discuss or even name many of their clients. But the roster, past and present, includes such companies as Southern California Edison, the Screen Actors Guild, Microsoft, Cisco, and Avanti. Not all their work is related to crisis, as companies may pull them in for M&A work or competition issues. The two also do a significant amount of work with sports teams and leagues, including the NHL and NFL. Fabiani has been working closely with the San Diego Chargers on the team's bid for a new stadium and possible relocation. Senior executives find confidence in the fact that both are Harvard-trained attorneys who speak the language of PR and law equally well. "They work in this murky area in which lawyers and PR specialists interface, which is always one of the most uncomfortable places to be in the world of PR," says McCurry. "They always earn the confidence and trust of lawyers, but simultaneously know how to deal with the press." Relaxing in Lehane's office in San Francisco's North Beach (Fabiani works from his base in Southern California), the two explain how they focus on personal counsel for the C suite. "Most of our clients fall in the intersection of government, public affairs, and law - those issues tend to intersect," Lehane says. "We keep a very limited number of clients, so people know we will be at their side whenever there's an issue. That's what they are paying for." Fabiani's background includes four years as deputy mayor of LA, and chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bradley. He was special counsel to Clinton through the 1996 campaign, and then left the White House. Gore recruited him in 2000. Lehane is a former aide to Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan. He joined as special assistant counsel to Clinton during the 1996 campaign, then moved on to become Gore's press secretary while he served as VP. He moved to the campaign trail for Gore in 1999. The controversial 2000 election result still rankles. "You wonder if there was anything you could have done," Fabiani says. "Did I give up too soon? Would it have made a difference if I did this or that?" He says that he is done with politics, but Lehane seems keen to wade back into that morass one day. Fabiani and Lehane see a parallel between the kind of scrutiny corporate America is now facing and the kind that politicians have faced for decades, particularly since Watergate. How companies under investigation handle the media is vitally important to their long-term survival, Fabiani says. "Former federal prosecutors and former regulators say privately that it is no secret that how The Wall Street Journal is looking at our case has an impact on the prosecution or the regulations," he says. Corporate communicators may not always have the experience or the bandwidth to handle the intensity of a seemingly hostile media and legislators. "So many times, the companies are just trying to deal with the day-to-day firefights that are often hard to be able to take a step back and look at from a different perspective," Lehane says. Fabiani says corporate PR teams will emerge smarter. "It's experience. You can't go to school to learn this. We made mistakes early on in the White House that we really learned from," he says. Companies need to fight the urge to hide amid problems. "There's a hair-trigger atmosphere where a lot of these issues are going to go down to the long-term viability of the company," Lehane says. "Companies really need to fight these issues with information." "It's counter to every instinct people have," Fabiani agrees. "You need to play to win."
------------ Mark Fabiani 1989-1993 Deputy Mayor and chief of staff to Los Angles Mayor Tom Bradley 1995-1996 Special counsel, President Clinton 1996-2000 Solo corporate consultant 2000 Deputy manager for communications and strategy, Vice President Al Gore's Presidential campaign 2001-present Corporate consultant, in partnership with Chris Lehane ------------ Chris Lehane 1991-1994 Political aide to former Maine Governor Joseph Brennan, while attending Harvard Law School 1995-1999 Served as Vice President Al Gore's press secretary, along with other roles at the White House 2000 Campaign press secretary, Vice President Al Gore 2001-present Corporate consultant, in partnership with Mark Fabiani