Biden botched touchy feely crisis response

The former vice president has gone from everyone's favorite uncle to the family friend people want to avoid at Thanksgiving in the space of a few short weeks.

Joe Biden has always been a very physically demonstrative politician (Pic: Getty Images)
Joe Biden has always been a very physically demonstrative politician (Pic: Getty Images)

Was there anyone who didn’t cringe just a little bit when they saw Joe Biden’s video response to the recent controversy about his overfamiliar way of interacting with people, especially women?

The former vice president has long been known for his shoulder massages. I remember President Obama joking about it in 2015 during his routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. "You should try one," he quipped, before delivering the payoff line, "Oh, you have."

Back then it was all done in lighthearted good humor, and clearly most people in the room were familiar with Biden’s touchy feely ways and in on the joke.

But the story is not so funny now. Once it came out into the open, as is usually the case in such matters, more women emerged publicly to describe uncomfortable encounters and unwelcome physical contact with the would-be 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Biden’s amateurish home video released last week was designed to assuage the doubters and stem the negative publicity around the issue. It ended up doing exactly the opposite.

He explained how, "I shake hands; I hug people. I grab men and women by the shoulders and say ‘You can do this.’ That’s the way I’ve always been. It’s the way I’ve tried to show I care about them and I’m listening."

It certainly gave President Trump some easy wins on his very active Twitter feed, though that was a bit rich coming from someone who brazenly admitted in 2016 to "grabbing women by the pussy" on a leaked hot mic conversation with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush.

Biden doubled down on the missteps in the days following the release of the video, suggesting he doesn’t understand the concerns people have with his behavior quite as much as he says he does.

In a speech last Friday he joked he had gotten permission to hug union president Lonnie Stephenson at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ conference in Washington, DC. He followed that by saying some children that were invited on stage had given him "permission to touch them."

The dad joke style got laughs in the room, but just doesn’t play well outside his close circle of friends and supporters, especially among women and young people.

Cue Biden having to apologize for that as well, telling reporters afterwards, "It wasn’t my intent to make light of anyone’s discomfort. My responsibility is to not invade the space of anyone who is uncomfortable in that regard."

As Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show, Biden is the only politician who has said he’s going to stop doing something while at the same time actually still continuing to do it.

Next up was a cold open sketch on Saturday Night Live in which Jason Sudeikis reprised his role as Biden taking sensitivity training from Kate McKinnon’s character to counter "that touchy feely stuff."

The payoff line that he really didn’t learn anything but felt it was important to listen uncannily captured the impression he was giving back out in the real world.

Noone is suggesting Biden has done anything as egregious as the likes of alleged sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein. But his behavior is out of step with social mores in the post #MeToo world we live in.

As I’ve said many times before in this blog, optics matter, so does getting in front of an issue rather than trailing behind it picking up the debris. Biden and whoever, if anyone, was advising him on communications were falling down on basic PR and crisis strategy.

Crisis wrangler Dan Hill told The PR Week podcast this week he would have advised Biden to take some time out and make sure he himself had fully come to terms with the furor.

He bemoaned the obsession in crisis practice with feeling the need to respond to everything immediately.

"[The video] made it 100% worse," said Hill. "Everything he’s done has made it worse.

"I highly doubt Joe Biden has come to terms with how he may have made people feel uncomfortable. In order to adequately handle the crisis, you’ve got to handle the issue."

Hill noted this was his advice to high-profile former client Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist who was done for doping, and his lawyers.

"When that whole thing blew up he didn’t need to run to Oprah. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t come to terms with all the things he had done."

For a crisis response to be effective and authentic, it has to be completely sincere, and that sometimes needs a little time

"Just say you’re going to take a bit of time, do some soul searching, talk to some people," concluded Hill. "You have a process and you’ll speak when you’re ready."

While Biden hasn’t yet formally announced he’s running for the Democratic nomination, he is already well in the lead in the polls on the back of the immense goodwill he has established over the years, support from unions such as Anderson’s, and the fact he is one of the few centrist Democrats in a race currently dominated by more left-wing ideologists.

The touchy feely crisis hasn’t killed off his chances, but if he does decide to run and, ultimately, gets into a dog fight with President Trump in 2020, he’ll need a better communications and crisis strategy than the one demonstrated over the past few troubling weeks for Brand Biden.

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