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A TELLING TIME FOR AMERICA : When a Campaign Stumbles: A Few Golden Rules for Damage Control

May 10, 1987|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

WASHINGTON — The collapse of Gray Hart's campaign should be a lesson to all presidential candidates. Every presidential campaign faces crises. How the next candidate handles the next crisis may determine whether he makes it to the White House at all.

Richard M. Nixon's Checkers speech, following revelations of a slush fund, and Jimmy Carter's "lust in my heart" quote were crises handled successfully. Other crises, such as George Romney's brainwashing comment on Vietnam and Sen. Edmund S. Muskie crying in New Hampshire, were not. These events marked the beginning of the end for those candidates.

All these situations were similar in severely threatening the campaigns. All the responses were attempts to deal with the threat. Not all were equally effective. Some extended and deepened the crisis; others shortened its duration and minimized its impact. Some crises, however, are beyond the control of even the most able campaigns. Hart's crisis was obviously beyond any good campaign manager's control.

After participating in a number of presidential campaigns and running one for the last Democratic nominee, I've found at least six golden rules for crisis management. On some of them the Hart campaign did well, on some poorly. 1) Plan for a crisis.

In a presidential campaign it is suicidal not to assume the worst--there will be a crisis. Before it happens the key players need to understand their roles. They have to expect rapid decisions, a solid phalanx behind the story put out by the campaign and a minimum of internal discussion. Which leads to the second rule:

2) Minimize the number of voices .

Quick decisions mean fewer participants are making those decisions. The fewer people involved usually (not always) means fewer screw-ups. The campaign is trying to get a coherent message out quickly. That means a small decision-making group, speaking with one voice, with the timing and substance of the response closely controlled. Which means one needs to:

3) Gather all the facts quickly.

The purpose of collecting all the facts is to know the complete story and present that to the public in the best possible light. To prevent new revelations appearing daily on the front page or the evening news, the campaign will, in most cases, opt to take its lumps and tell the whole thing at once. This serves to:

4) Reduce the number of news cycles.

The only thing worse than a scandal on the front page is a scandal on the front page day after day. Trying to shut off a sensational story while packs of reporters are in a feeding frenzy makes this rule the hardest to control. Part of it is dependent on what other news stories are demanding attention. At very least, a campaign should never contribute, through its mistakes, additional news cycles. The goal for whatever stance is taken must be to:

5) Minimize damage to the support base.

A major purpose behind any story released to the press is to give supporters a line to use, to give them a reason to maintain support for the candidate. The support base needs to be contacted quickly and reinforced. Of course the person best positioned to do that is the candidate. Whenever possible he should be the:

6) One spokesman for the campaign.

Not only is this important for presenting a unified coherent response, it is also vital for what it reflects about the candidate. The crisis is likely to have raised questions about the candidate's leadership qualities, judgment under fire and desire for high office. What better way to address these charges than having him appear in command in public?

Now that the Hart campaign is over, a few preliminary judgments can be made on how well it handled the situations.

Compared to the 1984 campaign organization, the Hart campaign of '88 was improved. In this crisis, unlike the "Where's the beef?" issue of '84, it seemed prepared for tough problems. But what Hart gave them was more than any campaign structure could handle.

In following Rule No. 2, the campaign had less success, in part because of the origins of the crisis. Involvement of people outside the campaign made it difficult to limit the number of voices speaking for the campaign. Initially, Hart's campaign manager, William Dixon, and William C. Broadhurst, the lawyer who said he housed both women, spoke out, as did the candidate himself. By the second day, Miami model Donna Rice and her lawyer joined in, a number of other campaign staff members made comments and Dixon took on most of the spokesman duties. Only by the third day did the candidate re-emerge to become the primary spokesman through his speech to the publishers. But at this time, so crucial to limiting the damage, Hart tried to refer to the incident only in passing. In any case, too many people had already been speaking.

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