News of the arrest of James O’Keefe, celebrated conservative activist and scourge of ACORN, spread very quickly, even by today’s mega-hyper media standard. The fallout has been accompanied by extreme helpings of gloating by many opponents, including ACORN itself. Quite a bit has been said about the stupid incident, but not so much about how the accused (or his lawyer) should respond to the allegations.
In crisis public relations, the publicist usually counsels the client to get ahead of the story and communicate early and quickly, so as to take control of the narrative before others do. This primary strategy, when executed well, pays great dividends in reputation management.
The second strategy sometimes employed is to say nothing as the crisis unfolds. This tactic consistently flops, as outrage often becomes the theme and cements itself over the relevant time period. (O’Keefe, however, may have a pass here as there may be a gag order in place, prohibiting public comment on the incident.)
Yet, there is a third way, or tactic, that sometimes appears, by far the worst of the lot – let’s call it the verbal tap dance. Instead of addressing the allegations truthfully or staying silent, the client or spokesperson’s response bends the spine of logic by parsing words to the point of sheer absurdity.
The problem is that it doesn’t take much to see through such statements and everyone passes even harsher judgment on the scrutinized individual. In this case, the relevant FBI affidavit states that O’Keefe admitted coordinating with two others in an operation to tamper with federal government phone lines. So why does his lawyer say that there was no “interfering with the phone system”? And what good does it do O’Keefe to brag on Twitter that “Govt official concedes no attempt to wiretap”? (And that’s assuming that this observation is true! Right now O’Keefe isn’t exactly the best messenger for such forceful rebuttals.)
If you are dealing with crisis management, and the public collectively rolls their eyes when you speak, your playbook and strategy need to be revised.