How Not to Handle a Crisis

John Edwards blew it.  I’m not offering a moral opinion about his affair.  I’ll leave that for others.  But purely as a study in crisis communications, he made some classic mistakes — repeated all too often by people who find themselves in situations they’d rather not own up to.

Mistake 1:  Having the affair. This kind of crisis always begins without someone doing something they shouldn’t have.  Interestingly enough, when things are all said and done, the original mistake often isn’t the thing that does the most long-term damage.  Most of us understand how easy it is to fall short of perfect.  It’s the lies that follow that make it so hard to forgive the original mistake.  Edwards’ unsuccessful attempt to cover up his original mistake has hurt him at least as much as the affair — and the story isn’t over yet.

Mistake 2:  Letting the problem linger. The National Enquirer has been pursuing this story for months and Edwards kept it alive by continually denying the truth of what happened.  To make matters worse, he gave the story new legs when the Enquirer caught him meeting with Reille Hunter a couple weeks ago at a hotel in the middle of the night along with the child the Enquirer claims he fathered.

Edwards finally owned up to the affair on Friday — but only after months of denials and two weeks of silence after being cornered by the Enquirer at the hotel where he met Hunter.  The two weeks of silence in the face of an apparent smoking gun that was well known to the media and others did huge damage to Edwards’ credibility.

Mistake 3:  Leaving loose ends. Edwards took a stab at coming clean on Friday.  But he left at least two big loose ends that promise to keep the story alive awhile longer:

  • He offered to take a paternity test to prove Hunter’s child isn’t his, but the test hasn’t taken place and the mother says there won’t be one.  That will keep the story alive awhile longer and, without a paternity test, there will always be lingering doubts.  Out of Edwards’ control?  Perhaps.  But he’s had several months to work on this issue.
  • Hunter reportedly has received payments for some period of time, up to $15,000 a month according to one report that claims the payments were hush money to keep her quiet.  Edwards says he didn’t make any payments to Hunter and that any payments that were made were without his knowledge.  If she was paid, who made the payments and why promises to keep the story alive.  If any laws were broken, the story could become decidedly worse.

In summary, Edwards made a classic mistake that made the story more damaging:  He waited too long to own up to the problem.  And he made another classic mistake that could mean there’s more damage to be done:  He left loose ends that will encourage reporters to keep digging.

It’s Crisis Communications 101 – Come clean as quickly as you can and get all bad news out at once; don’t leave anything untold that will keep the story alive for another round of new revelations.

Is there more to be revealed?  Only time will tell.  But Edwards has increased the damage to his career and reputation by flunking Crisis Communications 101.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

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