Don't wait to establish credibility

Almost all analyses of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's communications problems focused on how he responded to the Mark Foley situation once it occurred.

Almost all analyses of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's communications problems focused on how he responded to the Mark Foley situation once it occurred.

But his difficulties truly stemmed from a blunder he made years earlier when he decided not to establish his own presence and image. As a result, rather than being able to deal with the Foley crisis, Hastert was defined by it.

Some of this is understandable. Hastert rose to prominence when Newt Gingrich - one of the most identifiable and controversial speakers ever - was forced to resign. It was logical, therefore, for him to try to be "un-Gingrich."

Hastert was also in a tough spot because he presided over a GOP-controlled House when a Republican was President. Unlike Democrat Tip O'Neill, who was speaker when Ronald Reagan was President, and Gingrich, who faced Bill Clinton, Hastert's role was to support what the President wanted, rather than be the head of the loyal opposition. He clearly decided he could best do that by not competing with Bush for public attention.

But Hastert was never just the administration's main man on the Hill. The Constitution states that the speaker is next in line to the presidency if anything happens to the President and Vice President. He is also the equivalent of the CEO of the House and has to be prepared to defend the institution.

Hastert's lay-low strategy worked well as long as Bush's popularity remained strong and the House was relatively scandal-free. But the combination of Bush's steadily falling job-approval ratings and the constant stream of GOP congressional problems created a perfect storm-like backdrop that required Hastert to have his own public credibility to draw on.

But he didn't. Eight years after he became speaker, most Americans didn't know who he was or what he stood for. That intensified the media frenzy and public outcry over Foley. Hastert simply didn't have the credibility to convince people he was sincere in wanting to deal with the situation or that he was telling the truth when he said he did not know about it. The public knew so little of him that the staffers and congressional pages contradicting him had equal credibility. Hastert looked and sounded defensive as he repeatedly had to plead to be taken seriously.

This poorly conceived PR strategy is not confined to politics. Corporate leaders follow this same pattern and suffer the same fate when they do little to establish credibility in advance of needing it.

A good example is from our own profession. It wasn't long ago that the CEO of a major ad/PR holding company who had followed the Hastert strategy since taking over did not understand why reporters and analysts covering his company didn't appear to believe him when an accounting and corporate governance scandal seemed to be at hand. As a result, his company's stock price fell more than 50%, and there were rumors about it being a possible takeover candidate.

The lesson from the way Hastert handled the Foley situation, therefore, is simple: Crisis communications plans will have limited impact if you wait for a crisis to occur. The far better plan is to prepare for it by having senior executives begin to communicate when they can rely on the credibility they establish, so it's there when they need it.

Stan Collender is an MD in the DC office of Qorvis Communications.

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