February 3, 2019
At the press conference, he reversed his initial statement that he was in the photo, saying he actually was not in the photo, but had done blackface before, when he blackened his face and dressed up like Michael Jackson to do the moonwalk in a dance competition. This is a bizarre move, as he is spiraling into oblivion. There is literally no worse move than to completely change the fundamentals of your story in the middle of a PR crisis. Once you make an absolute statement such as “I was in that photo,” you are committed to that until the crisis subsides.
While there were already many calls to resign, the press conference resulted in even more calls to resign, including one from the black former governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder.
Of course, the problem was in getting to the point of giving the press conference. The initial handling of a crisis is the most important. It has to be done quickly and decisively. And it has to be done exactly right.
I am obsessed with crisis management, and in all of these situations, I like to picture what I would do if I was head of the PR team.
The first thing to understand is that public support is largely based on “influencers.” The masses of people look to the opinions of certain specific people in order to form their own opinions.
If Northam had told me that resigning and staging a comeback was out of the question, and that he wanted to remain governor, what I would have told him is that the single most important thing is how the local and national Democratic black caucuses, and even more importantly the black former governor, Wilder, respond to the incident.
If you have the backing of the local black leaders, it becomes much more difficult for national white leaders to attack you. More importantly, it is no longer an obligation for national white leaders to attack you, and so you can contact them from that point and figure out what they want.
I would call Wilder and the other black leaders and figure out what it was going to take to get their support, and go from there. I would make sure I met their requirements, and then move on to trying to figure out how to meet other requirements within the framework of first dealing with them.
Former governor Wilder actually supported him before the moonwalk press conference, which indicates that there was plenty of room there to placate him.
Wording is extremely important in these situations, and the fewer words the better, and a press conference, though intended to give the appearance of being open, is misguided, because there are way too many opportunities for misstep and bad quotes. What makes the most sense is a loosely scripted interview on TV with a sympathetic personality. This is what Judge Roy Moore tried to do with Sean Hannity when he had that jailbait love scandal, but he screwed it all up.
If no one on CNN or MSNBC was willing to set up a meticulously plotted 7 minute interview with Northam’s PR team – which is not likely, but possible – then he should have gone with a local news station, which would have done it no matter what because it would have been aired on every national TV channel and massively boost the profile of any local broadcaster.
Although it would be nice if we lived in a world where he could come from the “it was a different time” angle, that is obviously not possible, so it had to be an “I’m sorry” angle. He got that right. But I think his repeated use of the word “hurt” in the initial statements was wrong. I would have focused on his regret, rather than confirming the non-intuitive claim that individual black people suffered because he dressed-up in this costume 35 years ago.
I would have went with “dumb kid” as a key phrase in the initial statement to get in the headlines. Casual self-deprecation puts the focus on his own wrongdoing, rather than the ostensible effect of it, and the phrasing is so unexpected for a public statement that it would necessarily become the headline, and so we would be determining our own headline. “Northam says he was a ‘dumb kid’ when he took racist photo” is a whole lot better headline than “Northam apologizes to all the people he hurt with racist photo.”
If he had substituted the word “offended” for “hurt,” it would have indicated the release of the photo was what offended people. Using the word “hurt” indicates that people had already been hurt before the photo was in the media, which gives the impression he is the type of person who spent a portion of his life hurting black people.
I would make a point not to actively play-up Northam’s supposed achievements in the field of fighting for equality, as he chose to do, as the current premise is that you can never make up for doing racism by doing anti-racism. Furthermore, because racism is an unforgivable sin, outlining any kind of plan to work toward forgiveness is wrong.
The first rule of doing damage control is that it should never look like damage control. Giving a written statement, then a video statement, then a press conference, was a horrible series of responses. I would have had him give the written statement immediately, then go the next day to the above mentioned loosely scripted interview, and I would have made sure to reenforce the key phrases of the initial statement in the interview, with the interviewer asking about specific parts of the written statement using the key phrases.
I would spin the offense as resulting in a positive outcome, in the form of a lesson that not only he learned (past tense), but a generalized lesson that the entire white population needs to learn (future tense). I would frame it as a kind of parable in the context of the existing cultural mythos regarding race.
Although it is counterintuitive, it is impossible to abuse buzzwords or slogans in our current culture. Attempting to appear genuine by refusing to stack buzzwords and slogans on top of each other is a terrible move.
This was his initial written statement:
Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.
He said the apology was the first step, but ended his statement with it. “Beginning a journey toward forgiveness” is a horrible narrative, unless you are resigning to later stage a comeback. People already calling for you to resign are not going to agree to let you stay in power while you go on a journey, because it is taken for granted that before you’ve completed the journey, you are unqualified to lead. And it is unnecessary to begin a journey to learn a lesson over something you did 35 years ago. You should have already learned whatever lessons you needed to, and make it clear that the picture was taken in the past and you are already finished with the journey.
The apology should have been the first step of the statement, and by the end of the statement, he should have already been moving forward.
I would have written this:
Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I want to offer my sincerest apology to all those offended. These were not the actions of the man I am today, but the actions of a dumb kid, growing up in a culture of privilege in a country which continues to struggle with a history of systemic disenfranchisement of people of color. We have a long way to go as a nation to overcome our past mistakes, and I am committed to continuing to work with the the uniquely diverse people of the great state of Virginia to overcome these challenges and build a more equal and just future for all people of every race, gender, national origin and sexual orientation.
“Our past mistakes” references his own mistake in the context of a nation of people making mistakes. You downplay your own actions with a popular attack on America in its entirety.
“Continuing to work” puts the picture in the past, where it already is. His own statement made it sound like the picture was from last weekend.
By explicitly mentioning not only race, but “gender, national origin and sexual orientation,” you would remind people that you are part of the greater struggle for equality, while also nodding to those various groups. Black people may or may not get offended that you are mixing their struggle with the struggles of other groups, but that doesn’t really matter. Currently, society is more focused on transsexuals and immigrants than blacks anyway, and you’re not really writing this statement for blacks (save for the local leaders), you’re writing it for white liberals.
In the followup interview, what I would have done is have the interviewer ask him about the “dumb kid” phrase, and have him give a concise and slogan-laden response:
Growing up in a culture rooted in racism, young people do not understand the lived experience of people of color and the way that the actions and attitudes of privilege affect their communities. We are all working to be better, and to overcome America’s tragic history. I’ve devoted my entire adult life to working towards reconciling the wrongs of this nation’s past, and ensuring a future where we can move forward together, and I will continue to do this with the blessing of the people of this great and diverse state.
This frames everything within the context of the current narrative of “systemic racism” and effectively shifts blame from himself to all white people and American history without appearing like a blame shift.
“Embattled,” “refusing” and “fighting” are all negative keywords words that the media is going to use, so you have to circumvent those. You have to do everything to avoid looking like you are in a confrontation with the people. By saying “with the blessing of the people,” Northam would have been indicating that he is not “refusing to resign,” but is staying in power because unnamed people support him. He would be taking it for granted that people do support him and have already accepted his apology. This indicates that the situation already has closure which the people still mad need to embrace, and that he is not forcing or resisting anything.
This is infinitely better than claiming you need to do some kind of rehabilitation program.
Finally, the killshot would be framing his own resignation as a win for Republicans and Donald Trump, and without making it look like a blame shift, insinuate that Democrats making the calls for him to resign are aiding Donald Trump. This has to be subtle. I would do this by talking about how “this president has forced us all to reexamine this country’s history and amount of work we still have to do to overcome the past and realize this country’s promise that all men deserve to be treated equally, and I am devoted to continuing that fight.” That way, people calling for him to resign are calling for a fighter against Trump to be removed from power. That is the best he could do to seed a “playing into Trump’s hands” narrative without it being too obvious.
Of course, the reality is that none of this would have been likely to work. Because some crises are simply impossible to manage, no matter how good you are. But I am certainly a helluva lot better at this than Ralph Northam and whoever he hired.