Note: Ceisler Media Senior Director Kirk Dorn is an expert on crisis management – how best to handle when an emergency or unexpected predicament threatens your reputation, business or career. In this blog Dorn analyzes the series of stumbles made by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam after a racist photograph was discovered on Northam’s 35-year-old medical school yearbook page.
It doesn’t take an expert to know that the governor of Virginia badly mishandled the incendiary story about the photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook. I’m not here to analyze the politics. We have Ceisler Media Principal Larry Ceisler for that. But there are lessons to be learned from Governor Northam’s missteps for CEOs who may at some point face their own thorny situation.
1. Get your story straight before you speak or issue a statement. Northam’s office issued a statement on behalf of the governor hours after the story broke with Northam’s heartfelt apology for appearing in a racist photo. The only problem was his story would change.
2. Getting your story right is more important than immediacy. Once the governor’s staff was made aware that the photo had surfaced they needed to track down facts as quickly as possible. That means contacting the yearbook editor or anyone connected to its publication to learn exactly how the book was assembled and whether students signed off on their pages. Even if this process took until the next day the research had to get done before commenting. It apparently was not.
3. Don’t proactively damage yourself. On the second day the governor held a news conference to declare neither of the men in the racist photo was him. Aside from changing the story from the night before, which destroyed his credibility, Northam went on to say he was sure it wasn’t him because he had darkened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson on another occasion at a dance contest. What did he just say?! His motive was two-fold, to show he was honest and to beat anyone else to the punch who might out him. Neither was a good reason. He should not have brought this up.
4. Don’t make light of a serious and/or sensitive situation, even if prompted by a good-natured reporter. After Northam referenced the Michael Jackson contest, a reporter light-heartedly asked the governor if he could still moonwalk. Northam appeared ready to show off his moves when his wife fortunately stepped in to say the moonwalk would not be appropriate under the circumstances.
5. Practice! This should go without saying, but before speaking publicly in a crisis, your team should foresee every possible question and draft a strategically appropriate answer. You should then hold a practice Q&A session, on video if possible, so you can review your performance and body language. When you face reporters, if you get an unexpected question you’re not prepared to answer – don’t wing it. It’s preferable to say, “We’ll get back to you,” than to risk a mistake. It sure looked as if Governor Northam skipped the whole practice thing.
There are some situations that just can’t be overcome. It may prove in the end that the yearbook photo immediately rendered Ralph Northam a dead governor moonwalking. But if he had taken the right communication steps (or just let his wife speak for him) he might have been able to survive.
Kirk Dorn is the Senior Director in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.