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Eric Dezenhall Headshot

Why Managing Scandals Is Different Now

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Whenever a mess like the General David Petraeus affair blows up, I am asked by friends, acquaintances, students and journalists to handicap the state of play. The challenge is that no matter how hard I try, I'm lucky if I can get across one semi-cogent sound bite or bottom-line conclusion in most exchanges.

What follows, then, are some observations you won't hear on cable TV about how crisis management has changed in the past thirty years - and not for the better.

Change #1: Red-carpet fever: Publicity-seekers make bad crisis management clients.
If crisis management is the murky art of making problems go away, what do you do when you have a client that is hell-bent for the red carpet? Just because you're in a picture doesn't make you Scarlett Johansson, but scandal subjects often hold two opposing objectives at the same time: Making the public un-remember the more unpleasant aspects of a controversy and holding on to pre-scandal ambitions.

One of the characteristics of today's scandal-plagued is some degree of media savvy, ranging from the maestro Petraeus to the striving Paula Broadwell and the perpetually well-dressed Jill Kelley.

Ironically, seductive people are the most easily seduced. The very same people that are adept at persuading others to give them what they want can also be blind to how these powers may be used against them as misjudgments and events cascade. Favorable media coverage is often just a stay of execution, especially since it tricks the well-covered into believing they've arrived when all they've really had is a moment.

Attention feels good but it's not good for you because it dulls your early warning capacity, which is what gets very accomplished people like Petraeus in trouble in the first place.

While media hounding isn't new, its ubiquity is. This leads people like Broadwell, who is photogenic, but not a biographer, to get high-profile book deals, and Kelley, who is perpetually dressed for the Emmys, to provoke more shutterbugs, not less.

Change #2: Death by data point.
Before the internet, when a rumor surfaced about a prominent figure, it could be denied or remain answered. You'd say: Prove it. Pound sand. The result was the rumor would remain in the wind, an anemic orphan that couldn't hurt anybody.

A rumor circulated for years about George H.W. Bush and an alleged mistress and the result was bupkes because nobody had proof.

Today, every bit of information that can damage a target is "out there," true or false. Electronic communication and self-surveillance is an involuntary reflex, digital-age breathing. This won't get better. None of us, if caught up in a vortex of controversy, would be immune from having an adverse data point shake loose only to be twisted, magnified and pundited as a device of self-implosion.

If somebody can put a data point online, it's as good as being true. We have heard with great fanfare that General John Allen sent up to 40,000 pages of emails to socialite Jill Kelley. Some of those e mails are said to be salacious, although at this writing nobody has proof. Those staggering numbers appear not to be holding up to scrutiny, the archetypal figure 40,000 is in the bloodstream.

Then there's the hilarious title of Broadwell's Petraeus biography, All In, which has turned everybody following this story into sniggering fourth grade boys, especially when the cover was obscenely altered by some chucklehead and broadcast everywhere, including, by accident, on live television.

What about Kelley's 911 suggestion for diplomatic protection, an audacious notion supplemented by a steady stream of glam shots and detailed reports about deadbeat lawsuits?

These are examples of death by data point - morsels that weren't so easy to come by and broadcast years ago.

It wasn't that long ago when handlers - lawyers and crisis managers -- could count on information "silos": Reporters for whom off-the-record meant you would never see your name in print; Law enforcement agencies and congressional committees that had some semblance of self-discipline and confined themselves to strategic leaks, but were reluctant to dump the mother lode on the public; Parties to non-disclosure agreements ("gag orders") that adhered to contracts and didn't take the settlement money with one hand and mail a thumb drive to Wikileaks with the other.

Early reports have indicated that when an FBI agent investigating the ominous Kelley e mails wasn't getting traction at the Bureau, he went to a Member of Congress to reboot the investigation. Talk about grain spilling out of the silo.

Informational porousness also applies to crisis management teams where somebody, somewhere on the consultant food chain is either careless, or sees their personal self-interest as trumping their obligations to their client and provides hostile parties with running commentary from the inside, on the QT.

Change #3: The swindle of the Handler-Industrial complex.
If the "upstairs" plot in a scandal consists of the personal arcs and salacious tidbits, the "downstairs" plot is the meta-analysis of the spin and the spinners. Years ago, nobody knew who the consultants were and nobody cared. The joke is that when everybody is yammering about how they are being spun, nobody is spinning anybody.

Never has there been a greater demand for a service that is less able to accomplish what the client is demanding - and what the media and public actually believe can be achieved.

Many of today's crises have a physics of their own, a force-of-nature cascade beyond the reach of handlers. It is especially dangerous to misdiagnose a scandal as a PR challenge because it leads to the doomed belief that disasters can be handily dismissed with a media device.

Case in point, former Congressman Gary "Ask Me Anything" Condit who sat down on camera with Connie Chung and refused to answer the one question that virtually every viewer wanted answered: Were you romantically involved with murdered intern Chandra Levy? What did Condit believe the interview would accomplish, impress people that a guy with that head of hair couldn't possibly be dodgy (also see Edwards, John)?

Here's a trade confession: I turn away most scandal-driven clients that land on my doorstep. On the surface, this may seem like an idiotic admission for somebody in my field, but the truth is that most of these scandals are inoperable from a PR perspective, at least in the early stages. Such cases quickly lead to shattered expectations, "dream team" infighting, maddening news leaks and, usually, unpaid bills.

When I do take on a scandal case, it is because there is a potentially powerful counter-narrative. Put differently, good handlers can be effective, but only if we've got something to work with. The best quarterbacks can't do much without something to throw and someone to throw it to.

Of all of the players in the Petraeus scandal, the one to watch is General Allen. He has the most to lose, and alarm bells went off for me when I saw the first round of allegations begin to crumble and be re-characterized. Calling a woman friend "sweetheart" in an e mail falls well short of the threshold for bad generalship. Depending upon what the investigation finds, if it's not damning, Allen may be in a position to draw a line the marks the boundary of how far this scandal goes.

One thing's for sure: We'll have plenty of data to work with.