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Crisis Management Clichés Meet Hard Facts in Robert Menendez Case

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It is only in the idealized world of crisis management where you can "get out ahead" of a story.

Coming clean to the American public and the media may sound nice, but it is not sound advice in most real crises.

In the real world of crisis management, you sometimes plod along, manage things daily, buy time (which shouldn't mean lying) as best you can until an opportunity arises, a catalyst forces your hand or the crisis ends for better or worse.

The easiest crises to manage are those in which you have good facts which clearly demonstrate you are the victim. But in a crisis where you have culpability, there are no easy answers. While we don't know all the facts yet, the current crisis surrounding New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez certainly seems like the latter.

The facts that we do know are unpleasant enough for Senator Menendez. At a minimum we have: undisclosed private flights from a contributor who is facing regulatory issues; not meeting disclosure and reimbursement requirements for more than two years; and, intervening on a regulatory issue on behalf of the contributor. Then there are the salacious reports of cavorting with underage prostitutes.

Menendez is facing ethical, political and potential legal issues that will not go away because he holds a news conference. What particular thing should he get ahead of? What particular thing should he apologize for? And what if the next day someone asks him about some other fact that he didn't think relevant to reveal but the media does? Should he hold another news conference?

Only Menendez and his attorneys know the full extent of the facts. But if Menendez is smart, and he is, he and his team are prioritizing the issues. For the senator, the most important issue may be legal jeopardy. Does he have any? If so, the tension between lawyers, PR managers and political operatives will be constant. But during an acute character crisis where there is even a hint of legal jeopardy, the lawyers must take the lead. After all, if he spins a good and believable story that somehow makes the media go away (which seems impossible) but it later puts him at risk of going to jail -- it was a bad move.

For now, my guess is that the lawyers will advise the senator to say nothing or almost othing. However, the media beast needs to be fed, even if it's crumbs. You can't have a politician with a public schedule enduring a relentless spectacle of deflecting questions or running from cameras. This will make him look guilty. So I'm sure he's being told that the less he says the better and don't admit to anything. As a result, we get a few remarks in a hallway (the allegations are "unsubstantiated" and "smears") and not a long news conference. At a news conference he would take a beating, increase the drama and be judged on his performance and not necessarily what he says.

This is completely unsatisfying for those who think there's is some perfect formula for managing these situations, but Menendez's team is worried about the long-term, not getting through the next media scrum.

So for now, all he and his team can do is gather all the facts so that they are not blindsided by media stories; give Senator Menendez a few things to say, a very few, so that he isn't constantly seen fleeing from the media; and deal with each new fact as it comes up, do not "get out ahead of it."

As some point, a bolder strategy might be required but many a political figure has muddled through a crisis without evidence of any brilliant PR maneuvers -- dramatic news conferences or table pounding denials and the like -- and Menendez may as well. Of course, this depends on how bad the facts are.