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Crisis Comms “Best Practices”: Did Virginia House Dems and Gov. Northam’s Team Use Them Effectively? Or Not?

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Last week, two crises hit Virginia Democrats: 1) the “third-trimester abortion” controversy engulfing Del. Kathy Tran and Virginia House Democrats; 2) the “blackface/KKK photo” story impacting Gov. Ralph Northam. I was wondering how – and also how effectively (or not) – in each case the parties in the midst of their controversies used the “best practices” of crisis communications. Let’s compare. (note: for the purposes of this exercise, I’m not going to focus on the substance or merits of each situation, just the crisis comms angle)

According to Northeastern University’s “7 CRISIS COMMUNICATION TIPS EVERY ORGANIZATION SHOULD MASTER,” the first tip is “Respond Quickly.” That matches what a PR expert I spoke with this morning said to me about the key to effective crisis communications – “maximum disclosure, minimum delay.” According to Northeastern University:

“With the rise of digital and social media, customers expect a quick response to any issues that arise, because companies have the technology to address them. In most cases, if you don’t respond within the first few hours, people typically jump to two conclusions, according to [Dr. Ed] Powers [PR faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program]: That the brand is guilty or that it’s not in control of its message.

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Powers recommends responding on the same channels where the crisis initially occurred. Meaning, if a slew of negative comments surfaced on Facebook, post any updates or feedback on Facebook first. The longer you leave the commentary unanswered, the stronger, and angrier, the audience will become. In today’s digital age, minor missteps can become major crises within minutes.”

So how did Democrats do last week on this top “crisis comms” tip?

In the case of the Virginia House Democrats and Del. Kathy Tran’s abortion bill, the Virginia House GOP tweeted out video at 3:32 pm on Tuesday, January 29 of Tran speaking about her bill on Monday, January 28. Within hours, that video had “gone viral,” being retweeted thousands of times, picked up by the national right-wing echo chamber and getting millions of views. The response on social media and beyond was explosive — against Del. Tran and against Virginia House Democrats (and Virginia Democrats more broadly). I was watching this closely, wondering when Democrats would jump in strongly with a defense. Over at the Virginia House Dems Twitter feed, there was no response on Tuesday, January 29. Nothing the next morning. Finally, there’s a statement at 1:46 pm on Wednesday, January 30, hitting back hard to Virginia House Republicans for their “outrageous…sensationalism and fearmongering.” That tweet has so far received just 45 retweets, compared to nearly 10,000 retweets so far for the Virginia House GOP’s original tweet. There was also a torrent of negative comments on Facebook, including threats to Del. Tran and other Virginia Democrats.

The next day (Wednesday, January 30), leading Democrats and Republicans took to the Virginia House of Delegates floor and issued dueling statements on the controversy, with House Democratic Leader Filler-Corn stating, “what transpired yesterday was wrong, and it’s really beneath this body and unacceptable…It’s not taking care of each other, looking out for each other. It’s profoundly disappointing.” Also on January 30, Sen. Jennifer Boysko went on right-wing talk radio and did a good job defending Del. Tran and her bill, as the right wingers on the show hurled charges of “genocide” and other over-the-top, off-the-deep-end rhetoric. Also on January 30, Gov. Northam went on WTOP and was asked at one point about the controversy. Unfortunately, Northam didn’t appear to help matters, talking about how “If a mother is in labor…the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians & mother.” Republicans pounced – on social media and on Trumpster talk radio (e.g., the “John Fredericks Show”), charging absurdly that Northam supposedly endorsed “infanticide.” And then on Thursday, January 31, House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert went on “Fox & Friends” to further spread the Republican narrative about the bill, what it supposedly would do, etc.

So how did Dems’ response match up with Northeastern University’s crisis comms tip #1 (“respond within the first few hours” and “on the same channels where the crisis initially occurred”)? As far as I can determine, Dems did NOT respond much if at all in the first few hours. In fact, it took about 46 hours to respond on the channel “where the crisis initially occurred” (Twitter), and really anywhere at all. Then, when Democrats DID respond, it didn’t reach even a tiny fraction of the number of people reached by the right-wing echo chamber (e.g., thousands of retweets for the initial VA House GOP tweet; 45 retweets for the VA House Dem response). And sadly, this ineffective response led to exactly the result predicted by Northeastern University: “The longer you leave the commentary unanswered, the stronger, and angrier, the audience will become.”

OK, so how about crisis comms tip #2, “have supporters come to the brand’s aid in times of crisis?” Again, based on the numbers mentioned above, Dems and pro-choice were absolutely swamped by Republicans and anti-abortion folks. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia did begin to weigh in on Twitter a bit on January 29, more so on January 30 and even more so on January 31. That’s good, but the problem is it took a while, and that gets at crisis comms tip #1.

Regarding crisis comms tip #3, “put the victims first,” I’m not sure that’s particularly relevant in this case. On crisis comms tip #4  (“don’t play the blame game…By focusing first on who the culprit was, you put yourself before the victims “), it looks to me like the Democratic response was a mix of blaming Republicans for being nasty, dishonest, etc. and stating what the actual facts of the bill – and of existing Virginia law – were. I’m not sure how to measure #4 (“Be Transparent”) and #5 (“Perform ‘What If’ Work”), but on #6 (“Make Sure Your Message Is Consistent Company-Wide”), it looks like that was a mixed bag, with several Democrats (e.g., Del. Dawn Adams, Sen. Tim Kaine, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe) breaking with the Virginia House Dems’ messaging and stating that they did NOT support Del. Tran’s bill. Finally, on the overarching point, “Preparation Is Key,” it doesn’t seem like Democrats were prepared for this firestorm to occur at all, and if it did, to respond effectively. The result – a really bad week, even before we got to the next item…

Now, what about Ralph Northam’s team and its response to the “blackface/KKK photo” controversy? Again, this one went viral very quickly on right-wing media (sensing a pattern here? are Dems ever going to get our own media channels or just cede vast swaths of it to right wingers forever?). How did the Dems do in terms of crisis comms “best practices?”

    1. “Respond Quickly” – Gov. Northam had basically nothing to say for hours after the story broke on Friday afternoon, February 1 at 2:06 pm. On Gov. Northam’s spokesperson’s Twitter feed, for instance, I don’t see anything at all through this moment (12:49 pm Monday). As for Gov. Northam’s Twitter feed, the first (and only) response was on Friday, February 1 at 8:35 pm. Gov. Northam’s office also issued a statement at around 6:15 pm on Friday, February 1. The problem is, by that point the story had exploded across the country.
    2. “Leverage Your Supporters” – I didn’t really see that much at all. To the contrary, Northam’s supporters seemed aghast, confused, disgusted, etc. And within hours, many started breaking with Northam, condemning him, even calling for his resignation.
    3. “Put the Victims First” – Northam’s initial statement said he was “deeply sorry” about “a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.” The statement noted that his “decision shakes Virginians’ faith” in him, and vowed to do the “important work” to “heal the damage this conduct has caused” and to “[live] up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.” So…yeah, he apologized, but I’m not sure that he “put the victims first” here. What do you think?
    4. “Don’t Play the Blame Game” – I didn’t see any of that in Northam’s initial statements.
    5. “Be Transparent” – Now here’s where we start getting into trouble. I’d argue that, if Northam really was NOT in the photo, then he was actually TOO “upfront and transparent” in that he shouldn’t have admitted to and apologized for doing something he later said he didn’t do. If he really didn’t know, maybe he should have just said he needed to look into it? Of course, that would violate the recommendation not to “plead ignorance or stonewall.” As for the recommendation, “If there’s additional, related information that could paint the company in a negative light, Powers recommends sharing it,” Northam didn’t really get into that until the now-infamous press conference the next day, in which he talked about the Michael Jackson dance competition, in which he put on “blackface.” And that didn’t really help matters, but seemed to make things worse.
    6. I don’t have much to say about the “‘What If’ Work” point.
    7. “Make Sure Your Message Is Consistent…” That really REALLY didn’t happen, and that might have been the fatal flaw, more than anything. Instead, Northam almost completely changed his story, from initially acknowledging/apologizing for being in the photo, to the next day stating repeatedly that it as NOT him in the photo. So yeah, not consistent at all, and that’s arguably what people have been perplexed/upset by more than anything – other than the actual possibility that he was in a KKK costume or was wearing blackface – from what I’ve seen.
    8. Finally, on the “Preparation Is Key” point, it just boggles my mind that in all the year Northam’s been in public life (he first ran for State Senate in 2007), he never did the “self research” that would have found his college and med school yearbooks and prepared a response if/when they were made public (note: Northam could have decided to make them public at any time during 2007-2019, but he didn’t). Instead, Northam and his team appeared totally taken off guard, surprised, and not prepared to deal with this situation. Heck, Northam couldn’t even decide if he was in the photo or not. So…yeah, what we have here is a MASSIVE failure of preparation.

In sum, Democrats in both cases didn’t do very well (I’m being generous here) in terms of following the Northeastern University crisis comms “best practices” tips. The result – one of the worst weeks for Virginia Democrats I can recall since I got involved in this stuff in January 2005.