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Spin is Overrated: Crisis Communications for Members of Congress

Ever wonder how “spin doctors” in the public affairs world really accomplish their feats? According to crisis communicator and former White House staffer Eric Dezenhall, promises of “spin” are overrated. His new book “Glass Jaw” (Hatchette Books, 2014) explores the “instant scandals” that can affect anyone and anything: from corporations to members of Congress to average joes.  

Dezenhall shared his words of wisdom with Roll Call’s Hill Navigator on how members of Congress (and staff) can better protect their reputations. A lightly-edited transcript follows.  

Q. Your book “Glass Jaw” talks about defending reputations in an age of instant scandal. What can members of Congress (and their well-intentioned staffs) do to protect their reputations, especially as election season approaches and reputations are under attack? A. When it comes to protecting reputations, leadership and flexibility trumps strategy. I am skeptical of too much planning. What works best is having seasoned people who have been through controversy, and who recognize that crisis management is an improvisational art, not a toy model that comes with instructions. When I take on a case, one of the first things I look for is how seasoned the members of the team are. Members of Congress should want people on the team who have failed and who are not afraid of experimentation. The best fighters are those who have taken a punch and returned to fight.  

I’d be asking myself, do I have such people on my team?  

Q. You write that the media environment used to be more cordial than it is now. What do you attribute to the change? How can people who interact with the media—such as members of Congress or experts—better respond?
A. I’m not sure it was more cordial, but it was more controllable. What has changed are the physics: The fight is over before it begins because of a self-perpetuating free-for-all between old and new media and the pundit invasion which always declares the crisis management to have been botched.  

In “Glass Jaw,” I talk about how targets under siege like to say things like, “We need to push back.” My question is, “With what?” When we have a powerful counter-narrative, — and sometimes we do — we can save careers and companies, but when we don’t, we can’t.  

What the spin industry sells is the swindle control, and that’s what’s vanished. Today, controversies are like a football game where the referees are tackling the players and the spectators become players, throwing passes, kicking field goals, and provoking maximum participation in the farce. There is absolutely no way some executive gets hauled up to Capitol Hill and walks away looking good, so you have to know that going in.  

Q. If you were a Capitol Hill press secretary, what are three things you’d do to protect your boss’ reputation? A. First, the boss needs a truth teller. Big shots are surrounded by job preservationists who lie to them. I won’t take cases where I see that dynamic in play because I don’t do suicide missions anymore.  

Second, don’t over-respond. More-begets-more. The old saw about “getting it all out there” worked 30 years ago. Today, there is something to be said for extreme regulation of messages.  

Third, understand that social media is a dispersive technology while crisis management is a containment discipline. Just because social media works for some things, it doesn’t work for everything. There is a rabid evangelizing of social media that doesn’t apply to all things. Most crisis management where somebody thought they were being clever by saying “we must engage our stakeholders on social media” lived to regret it.  

Q. And what is something you’d never do? A. The epidemic of the age is the desire to play whack-a-mole with the media, answer every inquiry that arises before you even know what’s going on. You are not under oath. Nor will there be a correlation between how much information you give somebody hostile and them backing off.  

Q. Best piece of advice you can give to members of Congress and Hill staffers? A. There is no crisis management playbook. For every target who exercises the tactic thought to be in the playbook, there are five that do something else and survive perfectly well. “Glass Jaw” attacks the very premise of a playbook. You have to ask yourself, if the playbook being preached by the PR industry really worked, wouldn’t everybody be using it to great effect? The book eviscerates the cliches about apologies, immediate responses and my favorite worthless chestnut that is the favorite of pundits, “get ahead of the story.”  

Q. Best member of Congress bounce-back from a scandal? Worst? A. Best, [Sen. David] Vitter. Worst,  [former Rep. Anthony] Weiner. The reasons have more to do with context and the interplay between the personalities, back-home politics and the nature of their sins. With Vitter, it wasn’t overly exotic. Sins that are not exotic are more survivable. With Weiner, you have a guy who looks in the mirror and sees some combination of Lincoln and Brad Pitt tweeting crotch shots — named Weiner, no less. And he does it again! It’s something Larry David would dream up for his TV show.  

Q. You write that it’s a lot easier to light a forest fire than it is to put one out. With campaign season in full swing, what are some of the more effective attack tactics? What are some of the best ways a candidate can defend themselves and their record? A. Damage control was once about denial, stonewalling, re-characterization and counterattack. In the past you were asking people to imagine malfeasance, and if it couldn’t be proven, it just hung out there in the ether. But today it’s thrown in everybody’s faces because there are cameras, tweets and emails everywhere. I am convinced Romney’s recorded 47 percent remark was the inflection point that doomed his 2012 campaign. The fastest pathway to a takedown is on video or audiotape. The most common sense advice is to be hyper-vigilant about the constant presence of technology, but I see little evidence that telling people to be careful works because it’s natural to assume you’re not being surveilled.  

To the extent you are forced to defend yourself, there is something to be said for sheer endurance regardless of the venues in which you do it. Modern Americans want to see how well you take your beating. It’s a test of your worthiness. Sheer endurance is the most underrated crisis management skill, something the Clintons understand better than anybody and I’ve come to respect them greatly for it.  

“Glass Jaw” by Eric Dezenhall, published 2014 by Hatchette Book Group. 

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