Crisis Communication Gone Wrong

The John Edwards Lesson Of Career Implosion – And What You Can Learn From It

Let’s start with the obvious. Even in these cynical times, it’s safe to say that conducting an extramarital affair is not an action we associate with “good character.” When that “someone” is a nationally known public official, a man who sought to lead the nation as a vice-presidential and later presidential candidate, you’ve got the ingredients for a major scandal. Now add a loyal and highly-respected wife who happens to be waging a public battle against cancer – and campaigning for her husband while the affair is taking place. Mix in a textbook failure in crisis communications once the scandal breaks, and you’ve got the makings of a career-ending implosion.

Not so fast, say the cynics. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had a strong enough following to launch a presidential run, even after an admitted affair and some questionable behavior toward a seriously ill first wife. And of course, there’s the “comeback kid” himself, former President Bill Clinton, still on the national and international stage after denials, admissions and endless humiliating details of marital infidelity. Aren’t we now just too jaded, too sophisticated, to let a mere sexual dalliance destroy a political career? Not when you’ve done as poor a job of crisis communications as John Edwards has in the wake of this scandal. If there was any hope of him rising from these ashes, I’ll submit Edwards himself has ended it. So what are the lessons John Edwards failed to learn?

  1. When you’re in a hole: Stop digging. This is both the most obvious and the most difficult rule for those in crisis to follow. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, people often do what Edwards did initially: issue denials, avoid questions, send up smoke-screens and shift blame. These are the tools of a child and eventually, they will be recognized as such. No matter how unsophisticated you regard your audience, don’t build your response around the assumption they’ll remain ignorant.
  2. Bad news will come out. Get it out yourself. What realistic hope did Edwards have that the story of infidelity would just go away? In retrospect, none. The delay between when the tabloids first reported the story and when it was picked up by the mainstream media outlets was due to lack of proof, not lack of interest. Eventually, Edwards was forced to admit the affair, but in failing to get ahead of the burgeoning scandal, he lost all credibility.
  3. Know Your Vulnerability. Edwards staked a claim as a moral candidate, one whose family was the central focus of his life. He even criticized President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, particularly for the pain it brought to the Clinton’s family. Further, in discussing his wife’s personal battle with cancer, Edwards claimed that a political figure’s personal life was indeed fair territory for voters to explore in determining a candidate’s character. That weakened Edwards’ claims to privacy and made his refusal to answer questions hypocritical. If nothing else, all of those who feel aggrieved by the actions should be acknowledged.
  4. Learn what an apology is and is not. Even some of the most loyal of Edwards’ supporters read his statement of apology as worse than inadequate. In a disastrous performance, Edwards made claim to being “99% honest” because he had admitted the affair to his wife, while denying it to everyone else. Edwards strikingly made a point of noting his wife’s cancer had been in “remission” when he began the affair as though that lessened its impact, and laid blame for the affair on the unaccustomed attention he’d received as a national figure. By failing to acknowledge any broader implications of his behavior other than the banal admission of a “serious error in judgment,” and by refusing to acknowledge what this might say about his own character, Edwards missed any final opportunity to stem the bleeding.

Crises are never easy, and it’s more difficult to see them clearly the closer you are to them. That’s exactly why judgments are so immediate and so harsh when one fails to handle oneself well in a crisis. People think they see a person’s real character – or lack of it – when they are under fire. And they just might be right.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.

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