How Not To Handle A Political Crisis South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's rambling news conference where he admitted having an affair may be a textbook case of what not to do. One damage control expert says every principle of crisis communications was violated on a moment-by-moment basis.
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How Not To Handle A Political Crisis

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How Not To Handle A Political Crisis

How Not To Handle A Political Crisis

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Mark Sanford's dramatic and rambling news conference yesterday raised about as many questions as it answered.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has been talking with people in the business of advising politicians about the governor's unusual style of confession.

INA JAFFE: A communications professional could tell from Sanford's very first sentence that this news conference was not going to help him much.

Governor MARK SANFORD (Republican, South Carolina): I won't begin in any particular spot, let me just…

JAFFE: And he didn't - rambling on about hiking and travel and then spending five or so minutes apologizing.

Gov. SANFORD: …to my wife Jenny and our four boys - great boys - Marshall, Landon, Bolton and Blake…

JAFFE: What he was apologizing for wasn't clear at this point, but the group of people he said he'd hurt grew rather large.

Gov. SANFORD: So I want to apologize to my staff and I want to apologize to anybody who lives in South Carolina for the way that I let them down on that front.

JAFFE: That front turned out to be his affair with an Argentinean woman he called a dear, dear friend. He got around to mentioning it about seven and a half minutes after he'd begun talking.

Mr. CHRIS LEHANE (Democratic Political Consultant): I mean, watching it with a professional perspective, I mean, it was akin to fingernails on a chalkboard.

JAFFE: Chris Lehane is a Democratic political consultant.

Mr. LEHANE: You could just see virtually every single commandment of crisis communication is being violated on a moment-by-moment basis.

JAFFE: Lehane knows about crisis communication. He was President Clinton's spokesman during the Monica Lewinsky affair. And he says there are certain things you just don't do in a situation like Sanford's.

Mr. LEHANE: The script is pretty standard, right? You get up there, you apologize. Ideally you have your spouse next to you, who solemnly looks sad, but nods and indicates that he or she is going to stick with you. And you don't take questions, because, again, there's very little that you can say that's going to provide any type of answers that makes the public feel any better about the situation. And, in fact, answering questions usually just compounds the situation.

JAFFE: Sanford's news conference has been much described as teary. He often gazed at the ceiling as he spoke, as if the answers to the questions were written there and he'd forgotten his glasses. It was convincingly unscripted, says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional staffer.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): It indicated that it really was coming from the heart. Unfortunately for him, the situation just didn't lend itself to a real repair job. He's in a deep political hole and the only thing he did was stop digging it even deeper.

JAFFE: Sanford's problems go beyond the simple fact of his love affair. There's the week preceding the news conference when he was AWOL. First he was missing, then he was hiking, then he was at the Atlanta airport getting off a plane from Argentina. He's also battled the South Carolina legislature, which is dominated by members of his own party. And right now Republicans have enough problems, says Jack Pitney, without rushing to Sanford's defense.

Prof. PITNEY: Republicans are reeling from political setbacks, most recently, John Ensign's revelation in Nevada and consequently they don't want to drag themselves down further by trying defending what is basically indefensible. So he's not going to find too many friends at this point.

JAFFE: It's not impossible to win friends back, however. It depends on the way Sanford does his job going forward, says Chris Lehane.

Mr. LEHANE: At the end of the day I really do think the public does an amazingly good job of separating out the public from the private and that they believe that you're doing a good job. If they think that you're making a positive difference in the their lives or their family's lives in terms of how you govern, they're likely to give you a lot more leeway than they will otherwise. And I think those who have survived these and gone on made sure they handled things afterwards in a way that did not continue to undermine their position.

JAFFE: In other words, says Lehane, they kept their mouth shut about their personal lives.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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