The good news for the White House is that despite the Benghazi, IRS, and AP subpoena perfect storm of crises within a week, President Obama’s job approval ratings are up.
The bad news is that because of the violation of the fundamental crisis management rule about getting the truth out – “tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself” – the White House inflicted avoidable damage on itself that might give the Republicans an opportunity to do political damage in the future.
For example, on Benghazi, the “talking points” used by Ambassador Rice, once all 12 versions were finally published, proved that it was the CIA, not the White House, that originated the phrase to describe the assault on the post that resulted in the deaths of four Americans – i.e., that the attacks on the post were “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”
Thus Republican members of congress who claimed these words were made up by the White House to advance President Obama’s political message in his presidential campaign were 100% wrong – and owe Ambassador Rice an apology for their false accusation that ended up killing her chances to be Secretary of State.
But the crisis management failure is: Why didn’t the White House communications team publish these talking points five months ago? If they had, it is reasonable to surmise that Ambassador Rice would now be Secretary of State Rice.
Second, it is now undisputed that the White House Counsel knew for at least two weeks before the story broke that some IRS employees had engaged in the targeting of conservative non-profit groups for extra audits and investigations. Some argue that it was not necessary to tell the president because the IRS’s Inspector General Report hadn’t yet been finalized.
My question is, from a crisis management perspective: Why not give the president a heads up so that there could be planning, including preparing a message of outrage by the president that he could personally deliver the minute the story broke?
Instead, it took two days for the president to do that – not a long time, but still, I cannot understand why giving the president a “heads up” wasn’t an obligation of the White House Counsel, who must wear three hats – legal, political, and media – in that position.
Third, the White House made the right call in not commenting specifically on the criminal investigation that led to the subpoena of telephone records of Associated Press reporters. But it violated the crisis management rule of avoiding “no comment” on an issue of public importance.
There was a third choice between commenting on an ongoing Justice Department investigation, which would have been improper, and no commenting. And that is the familiar crisis management message technique of using the “but” pivot.
For example, the president could have said: “I’m not going to comment on the specific investigation, that would be wrong, but” – the pivot – “I can say generally I am concerned about the possible adverse impact on investigative journalism and the First Amendment of any broad subpoena of reporters’ telephone records.”
Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, we are all Americans who want to know the truth as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the White House has learned the important crisis management lesson of being proactive with communicating all the facts, good and bad, to get the story over with and to move on to the more important problems facing the country.
Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as President Clinton's special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is the author of the new book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.