16 Responses to Expert on crisis PR: What Obama is doing wrong
Who do you think Obama should put in charge of the response? I vote for Bill Clinton.
Mother Jones has a good interview with Chris Lehane, an expert in crisis communication.
They lead with the BP communications screw up, but I actually think what he has to say about what team Obama is doing wrong is much more important:
MJ: What do you think about Obama’s response?
CL: I’m empathetic in the first couple of weeks, the White House not necessarily fully engaging because this was a private-sector entity that was representing that it had the situation under control. I think after the first two or three weeks when it became obvious that this was a much bigger problem and that they simply did not have their hands around it, I think at that point, just given the magnitude of the issue, that the administration needed to sort of channel their Teddy Roosevelt. That means not only hectoring and beating up the company for irresponsible conduct, it means physically coming in and taking charge of the situation.
I always thought that at a minimum they needed to have a very high-level person who was recognizable publicly to be on the ground there and in charge. And as the situation evolved, they needed to consider actually seizing the BP platform and putting it under federal control. It’s a similar situation with the California energy crisis. At the time I’d given the recommendation to Governor [Gray] Davis that the national guard should have taken over the power plants. And people can raise legal issues, and there are probably some very valid legal arguments, but at the end of the day, it’s a question of whether the public believes you’re taking strong action and are not going to stand for it.
Well, I don’t see the point in seizing the platform since the government has no particular value-added on the effort to stop the gusher. It would look like grand-standing.
MJ: Some people have wondered whether the government didn’t get involved in the BP disaster sooner because of the same kind of liability issues you raised earlier.
CL: That’s the same kind of argument they made during the energy crisis, and my point was, at the end of the day, there’s an expectation from the public that the government is going to protect them and is ultimately responsible and accountable for this. If the government doesn’t come in and play that role, the public is ultimately going to come in and hold them politically accountable. And in a situation where you are looking at legal accountability versus political accountability, it’s the government version of the Arthur Andersen decision. To me, political accountability is going to ultimately be more important.
And by the way, I say this with my legal hat on, there are always ways to poke holes in whether you actually have any legal accountability. At a minimum, you could pass legislation pretty quickly giving the government the ability to come in and take over the receivership. You probably could have pretty quickly introduced legislation, and those who were going to vote against it would have looked ridiculous. Most people would vote for it, and you then would have the legal capacity to go in.
Seems implausible to me. You don’t need to go the receivership route for Obama to take over the response effort.
MJ: If you were advising Obama and BP, what would you tell each of them to do going forward?
CL: For Obama, put someone of national stature on the ground and in charge. Demonstrate a series of steps that show progress and action. Three, seek ways to emotionally connect to the public on the issue. And four, consider something pretty significant that allows you to pivot from being defensive on this to being offensive. And to me that is the potential receivership play.
Almost right, I think.
First, I very much agree he should have put someone of national stature on the ground in charge. Bill Clinton comes to mind. I’d be interested in your ideas. Thad Allen just isn’t the guy. Another possibility is Colin Powell.
Second, unfortunately there’s not bloody much Obama can do to avert lots and lots of bad news and bad images, as many have said (see Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy? and 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response”). But the public clearly perceives Obama could be doing more — certainly more visibly — and I suspect he could. They should have formally stripped BP of the leadership on the response weeks ago.
Three, that’s why I’d put Clinton in charge because he combines both leadership and emotional connection.
Four, no, I don’t think receivership puts Obama on the offensive. It just adds to the “government takeover” meme. But the pivot does put him on the offensive and he needs to press this very hard at every level, not just a few speeches (see “Obama begins spill-to-bill pivot: BP oil disaster means we must end our dependence on fossil fuels“).