“Was it really that bad or is it just me?” That is the first concern that popped into Aaron Latham’s head when his boss said something unexpected or controversial. Latham, a former congressional communications director and political communications professor at The University of Alabama, believes the situation itself is usually the biggest problem.
“Nine times out of 10 it really was that bad, and [as the PR person] you become the quarterback for the team and have to control the situation,” Latham said.
In a sticky situation, the role of a PR practitioner becomes that of a quarterback, and she has to lead the team to victory. It is essential to know what field you are playing on, who is playing and what your alternate move is if the first proves unsuccessful. Time becomes vital.
“You must assert control over the situation in the first 60 minutes,” Latham said.
Stephen Bradley, president of Stephen Bradley & Associates LLC, served as a political consultant for Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley before he made controversial remarks during an inaugural event on January 17. Bentley’s comments about religion rendered a PR challenge on day one. Bradley said that it is impossible to stop someone in the middle of speaking — however much desired at times — but communications consultants must instead assess the damage after it has been done.
Once something controversial has been said, it cannot be taken back, so moving on is the only option. But what can be done when your boss does not think she did anything wrong and will not retract her statements? Not much, said Latham.
“Your boss has the last call on that, and if you can’t persuade them to retract then you have to clean up the mess with the options that you have,” he said. “The most important part still remains moving on.”
Bradley also pointed out that situations like Bentley’s occur regularly. The key to correcting these issues is having a back-up plan, he said.
“It’s often a good idea to get involved quickly in other activities so that those stories can take the attention of the media,” Bradley said. “Bentley handled the situation well by apologizing. We all have to realize that we’re human and people respect an apology.”
According to Latham, the ability to forge ahead differentiates PR amateurs from professionals.
“The more time that you focus on the negative equals the more time that other people will too,” Latham said.
Bentley’s team worked to make sure that they avoided just that.
“Bentley moved on by hosting Jewish leaders that were offended by his statements at a roundtable discussion, and that was that,” Bradley said.
Other political crises take more time and attention to heal than problematic statements like Bentley’s. When your boss is caught in a scandal of any sort, more serious repercussions can occur. The job of the PR practitioner may then become more long-term and intricate.
In early February, news broke of a New York congressman who had solicited sex on Craigslist. Christopher Lee, nicknamed the “Craigslist Congressman” by Gawker,resigned from the House of Representatives hours after the story broke.
“When negative news breaks, your first move is to distinguish rumors from facts,” Latham said. “Determine whether you should draw up and execute a communications plan for accepting responsibility or for discrediting baseless allegations. Either way, speed is critical.”
Unfortunately, unforeseen statements or situations happen often, and like a quarterback, PR practitioners must be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. As Latham says, you become the quarterback; the next play is yours.
Photo courtesy of Sara Colburn and The Crimson White