The Messenger: Friend or Foe in a Crisis? Why Executives Who Should Know Better, Get It Wrong

The media make a tempting target for those in crisis.

When gaffe-prone Pennsylvania Governor Rendell found himself in the middle of a firestorm of his own making, his immediate response was to blame the media.

Rendell claimed he’d been taken “out of context” after telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board many white voters in Pennsylvania were “not ready to vote” for an African American for president. The Associated Press then picked up the story, giving it national attention. Constituents were angry at Rendell for portraying them as small-minded bigots,while those in Hillary Clinton’s camp felt Rendell had further stoked the simmering race issue. (Rendell was an early Clinton supporter before backing Obama).

Instead of issuing a forthright apology, Rendell gave one exasperated interview after another, blaming the media for essentially repeating his words. His spokesperson added fuel by saying Rendell was “just being realistic.” (Obama carried Pennsylvania handily, with women voters giving Obama a whopping 18% margin).

Now consider the case of another chief executive in trouble, former Governor Rob Blagojevich. Blagojevich launched a national tour, hoping a media appeal would save him from impeachment on charges of abuse of power. While media outlets from the Today Show to MSNBC were more than happy to accommodate the flamboyant politician with air time, the results only worsened public perceptions. The media tour finally culminating in David Lettermen telling the hapless pol to his audience’s delight: “You know, the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, ‘oh this guy is guilty.’”

Both Rendell and Blagojevich made a classic mistake in trying to use the media for their own ends. The media is neither friend nor foe—and cannot be a reliable foil or life preserver for those in crisis. Both politicians would have benefited from following the first rule of crisis communications, and one that can be followed regardless of one’s standing in the media: When in a hole, stop digging. To that I’d add: and don’t expect the media to do anything but keep an eye on which way you shovel.

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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