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“).

16 Responses to Expert on crisis PR: What Obama is doing wrong

  1. Lets be honest about the future…. There are a string of climate crises on the horizon: heatwaves, droughts, wild fires, hurricanes, floods, sea level rise, crop failures, storms, climate refugees, disease, water crisis…..We already have had small versions of these problems, and we should expect larger and more frequent events. We just don’t know when and how bad they will be…. But an easy prediction is to say they will be more common and more harsh.

    “Failing to prepare is just preparing for failure” – or does that only apply to sports?

    Seems like this is worthy of creating a dedicated cabinet position.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    What I Think

    First, I agree that someone with excellent leadership, thinking, and communicative abilities should have been put in charge of this full time. That much is clear.

    Second, I don’t agree that the response in the first two weeks was understandable. Other than being “empathetic” in the sense that I am, I hope, empathetic with the human condition in general, and with people who have tough jobs, I’m not “empathetic” with the initial response. Here’s why:

    Whenever we create an open hole in the bottom of the ocean, that goes into an oil reservoir, and whenever an entire oil platform burns and sinks, we ought to know right away that we very, very, very likely have a major problem on our hands and that the clock is ticking. If the private company says anything other than “we promise to have it plugged within 24 hours, sir!”, you need to get involved, a lot, and fast. I don’t expect that a brilliant person who has been a lawyer, and who was the head of the Harvard Law Review, can also be an excellent scientist, petroleum engineer, or whatever. But, I DO expect that he can surround himself with people who know when we have an immense problem on our hands. That is the whole point. They should have been on top of this from the get-go, and they should have been in charge within 24 hours, given that things weren’t fixed by that point. If the government needs people who can promptly identify a potentially huge problem, when it happens, in this sort of field, call me up.

    Third, I do not feel that people (at BP or in the government) are using their full intelligences and creativity and resources in order to solve this. There are too many things not being done, and there are too many things being done “on the cheap”, and too much time is passing. Can anyone here really say that everything possible is being done? No way.

    In the end, the main thing that matters on this sort of thing is effectiveness. Giving a private organization weeks or months to do things doesn’t get us anywhere. Being “legalistic”, and not finding legal ways to take charge, doesn’t get us anywhere. The things that matter are plugging the gusher, containing the flow, and cleaning up things promptly, BEFORE the stuff gets onto the beaches and into the wetlands — in other words, we’ve failed on that count already. The ultimate grader is the calendar, and how many days and weeks have already passed? Even if the gusher were completely plugged tomorrow, I’d still give the overall effort a D-minus at this point, all things considered.

    President Obama — and I voted for him and still wish him well — had better get his team in shape, replace ineffective folks, and “get with it” in a new and more effective way. Period.

    I do agree that someone prominent, credible, excellent, creative, demanding, effective, intelligent, and action-oriented should be put in charge of the Gulf effort and live there until it’s fixed.

    Be Well, and Cheers!


  3. mike roddy says:

    Richard, I agree- a Cabinet level position is called for. Hansen would be the obvious choice.

    Clinton would have been a great person to manage events in the Gulf, but it’s too late, and he wouldn’t want to try to patch up others’ mistakes. Maybe Wesley Clark instead- not so empathetic, but a good and very intelligent on the ground commander.

  4. Peter Bellin says:

    I think that the Federal government should not ‘take over’ the action of stopping the leak. It is very likely that this mess will continue leaking until August, when the relief wells may (or may not) stop the flow.

    Also, I find this business of counting the days of the disaster is misleading (Day 49!) When do they stop counting? When the flow is contained? That does not mark the end of the disaster, only the end of one stage of it. I wonder if those impacted by the Exxon Valdez would agree that the crisis is over.

    I do, however, agree that we need someone to stand in for the President on the day to day progress of action taken. Bill Clinton is a good choice. I wonder if he can work with Bush Senior and raise money to help the oil gusher survivors. (I meant that as a joke, but maybe it is a good idea.)

  5. Charlie Sullivan says:

    I think that putting B. Clinton in charge would look too much like Obama needing someone more presidential than himself to play the role he should have been playing himself. And I think someone with military experience would have good qualifications for running a major operation like this. So I agree with Wesley Clark or Colin Powell, although Powell has an unfortunate history of going along with those who were trying to pull one over on the public, and some might have trouble trusting him to tell it like it is rather than going along with BP’s version of the story. So Wesley Clark seems like a really good choice. I’m on the fence as to whether it’s too late for that to be a good move–it certainly would have been a good move in the first week or two.

  6. prokaryote says:

    The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is causing questions to be asked further afield about the place of oil and oil exploration.

    International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has just released its demand for a global moratorium on exploration in any “ecologically sensitive” area.

    Into this category the organisation puts all deep-ocean sites, and anywhere in the polar regions.

    IUCN is an unusual organisation in that its members include governments and non-governmental organisations.

  7. prokaryote says:

    It seems a reasonable conclusion to draw that the reason behind the disparity is simply financial; if companies saw more profit in building wind turbines than exploring for oil and gas, they’d want to build turbines.

    Would imposing a moratorium on oil exploration, as Mr Arsenis proposes, alter that equation? Or would energy companies move to oil drilling somewhere else, rather than wind power locally?

  8. Alex says:

    Hey Joe,

    What do you think of Robert Reich’s idea to create a Gulf Recovery Corps modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps? I think it would be a great way for the Obama Administration to regain control of the narrative surrounding the spill, supply the necessary labor that the Gulf cleanup will require, tackle youth unemployment, and create a new generation of Americans that appreciate environmentalism. Check out

    [JR: I like it.]

  9. Wit's End says:

    Bill McKibbon on All Things Considered discussing how Obama should be using the Gulf disaster as a teaching moment on climate policy and clean energy:

    Well done Bill!

  10. savemejeebus says:

    A couple of Australian political comedians’ take on the oil disaster:

    Very funny

  11. Rick Covert says:

    Let’s just get this well plugged. We won’t get there with BP in charge and I think former labor secretary Robert Reich’s proposal is the most sound. Put BP into receivership. That way the government can’t be lied to and the company will no longer have to put it’s feduciary responsibility to its shareholders above the well being of the public for the catastrophe largly of it’s own creation.

  12. Chris Dudley says:

    Right now, President Clinton should have his hands full with Haiti. There are a lot of people exposed to the wet and wind.

    I think that the Coast Guard was designated lead before the spill so we should stick with that. Bringing a lot more support given how large this is would be a good thing though. A little more info about the progress of the criminal investigation would be good. If there is foreign assistance that fits, it would be good politics to welcome it. Right now we are still facing the unsolved technical problem of lots of oil in the water at depth. Providing either mixing to the surface or a direct source of oxygen will be needed to break that oil down. This is a place to slam BP since they are refusing to deal with that problem.

  13. GasMan says:

    I just want to say I really appreciate the work of Joe Romm and Climate Progress. I have been a follower of Real Climate religiously for the past year, and I have just recently started following Climate Progress.
    Thanks for all the updates on the state of climate science and politics of the issues.

  14. Dan B says:

    Obama has put his faith in too many politicians. If he is going to preserve any credibility he must replace some of his closest advisers. I’d start with David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel. Both have a cagey air of ‘permanent campaign’. Until they are gone this administration will suffer similar ‘finger in the wind’ crises.

    What the public wants is some sense that there will be accountability. If your administration seems to have been ineffective then accountability must start there. This may be painful but the alternative is a strengthened, and extremist, GOP gutting any legislation that would clear the way for the US to enter the 21st Century.

  15. mike roddy says:

    Dan B, #14, Amen. Axelrod and Emmanuel are hacks, and have led our well intentioned president astray. Emmanuel in particular has way too much history with Wall Street and corporate America, and is reluctant to anger them. They will find that it has been the people that they are angering instead.

  16. Don says:

    Bill Clinton is far too polarizing for this national emergency. The focus would turn to him and not the work or leadership required. Too many hard R’s would rather root for a Clinton(or Obama, for that matter) to fail than see the clean-up managed properly. Colin Powell would be much better.