How to handle a political scandal [Updated]

[Updated on 11.13.2012 – While I would like to delete this post and pretend it never happened, I’ll confess: Everything you read from here on is wrong. I showed extremely poor judgment and  wishful thinking on my part to think that a scandal can be “handled.”  It was sheer fantasy to believe someone could actually handle a scandal the appropriate way, which is to say, any way to make the scandal go away so I don’t have to keep hearing about it. While, at this time, nothing has changed in the framework of the narrative I was basing this post on originally, the characters appearing on stage now are straight out of a TV comedy/drama: Something like a cross between Scandal (mentioned below) and Gomer Pyle. I give. No one will ever handle a scandal that’s not mishandled).]

For the first few years after college, I was “in” public relations. I use quotation marks on the word in, as I can’t keep up with the current euphemisms for professional spokespersons, publicists, press secretaries, corporate communicators, crisis communicators, speech writers, spin meisters, flaks, et al.

While I liked the people I worked with and I think I was fairly good at what I did, I’ll confess: I really didn’t like the job. (The reason why is another post for another day.)

A professional hazard of such a background is that even now, over 20 years after leaving PR,  I can’t help but observe breaking “scandal” news stories like the one taking place with the resignation of CIA Director David Patreus in the same manner I imagine former professional athletes must watch the sports they once played.  I can’t just observe the news unfold. In my head, I start analyzing (with a bit of post-traumatic shivers, at times) the mechanics of how all the parties (the subject of the news, the handlers, the family, the role-players, the media, etc.) are responding to the unfolding events.

In some ways, I am far more forgiving of the bungled handling of what I recognize to be, truly, an out-of-control situation. In other ways, I am outraged at how pathetic a person or company responds to situations that escalate — that, if handled better, could be played-out with less chaos and damage.

Perhaps that experience is the reason that, several years ago, after seeing repeatedly the ways politicians and other public figures mis-handle what they should do when caught in the middle of a scandal, I posted a satirical list called, The Nine Stages of Political Scandals.

Since then, several people have used that list to track such scandals. Amazingly (as I wrote the post as a quick joke), the response patterns have generally held up.

In other words, most politicians and public officials totally [insert word of choice, maybe, “fudge,” but I am going to use the initial “F” for this post] it up when it comes to handling a scandal.

Why? For the same reason anyone living in denial wants to keep living that way. Such is the mythology of scandal-handling, there are at least two TV shows (Scandal and The Good Wife) currently airing that have, as their central narrative, the “management” of scandals (note: of the two, Scandal is the best fantasy version, as its President spends most of his off-time, while not leading the free world, pining over his love for the show’s key character, a crisis-management handler, who is an expert at helping elected officials who accidentally shoot their spouse’s lovers).

While I hate to blow the whole TV version of scandal-management, there’s only one right way: And you’re witnessing it right now with how David Petraeus is doing it.

How is he doing it?

1. He F’d up.

2. Upon learning that his F-up was discovered, he didn’t kick into the denial cycle that would have been a parade of him blaming the FBI, the media, bloggers, etc.

3. He decided immediately* to man up. I only know what I’ve read, but apparently, the decision didn’t come after endless meetings with advisors — he just accepted the situation and decided to do what someone who has been shot through the chest and was back at work in a few days would do: accept the reality and move through it.

4. He made sure the news would hit late on Friday, but early enough to be covered drive-time, on the east coast.

5. For the next 24 hours, key reporters were provided access to “people close to the situation” who were able to clarify the nuances of the scandal that, if not responded to, would have been blown up by conspiracy theory mongers. (Who will still try to blow them up, once radio talk shows crank up on Monday.)

6. After 24 hours of providing, via key reporters, every detail of how the FBI ran across the affair, the timeline of the affair, the high school transcripts of the “other woman” etc., reporters got bored with those and had time to spend the next 24 hours recalling the ways they’ve witnessed personally, the Chuck Norris version of David Petreus. (A result of decades spent by Petraus learning how embrace the “mainstream media” rather than blame them for everything.)

7. By Monday, the story will be pushed off the front page. Indeed, as I write this on Sunday morning, the story is far down the front pages of major news media websites.

8. Okay, the story won’t be pushed off the front page by Monday, but it will not go on and on in the way it would have, had Petreus attempted the denial or “I’m checking into rehab” routines.

Another thing: Ignore articles you’ll start seeing on blogs and that have titles like “10 Things You Can Learn from How David Petreus Handled a Scandal.” You might as well be reading something on “10 Things You Learn that will help you be a 4 Star General.”

Here’s the only advice you need. Don’t F up. If you do, admit it on a Friday afternoon and start trying to salvage the parts of your life you can and say goodbye to those you’ve F’d up.


*[Later: Clarification and correction] “Immediately,” according to some reports, is not the appropriate description of how long it took him to “man up.” Petreus knew weeks before the election that the FBI had discovered the email.