The public relations response to the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has been mismanaged by Foley’s legal team and the House Republican leadership, according to several top crisis communications consultants.
But the experts disagree about whether quick admissions are more important than making sure the defense has all the facts before it begins its public relations barrage.
Foley staff’s shrugs last Thursday about merely “friendly” e-mail exchanges were blown apart the next day by revelations that the lawmaker had exchanged sexually explicit instant messages with a 16-year-old page boy. This news prompted Foley’s resignation on Sept. 29.
Yesterday, Foley’s lawyer David Roth said Foley had entered a rehabilitation center for alcoholism, was gay, and had been sexually molested as a teenager by “a member of the clergy.”
“I’d say they are moving very aggressively to try to limit the damage, which is normally a good practice,” said former President Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart. “What would concern me is have they taken the time to really understand the extent of the problem and just how bad this could get?”
Lockhart suggested that the speed of the Foley camp’s revelations could be a problem if they do not have all the facts of the case.
“If they have all the facts available to them, their strategy makes sense,” he said, but “if they are still doing fact finding, they are pursuing a very dangerous strategy.”
A former leadership aide agreed, saying Roth should start preparing for what will most likely be a long legal battle.
“It’s better to be unavailable to fill 24 hours of news than to screw up and make way for another cycle to cover your tracks,” the aide said. “The first rule of crisis communication is to be armed with the full truth so you can be prepared to make the proper argument. When you sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’ll likely kick you in the ass.”
Several of Foley’s close friends and associates reacted skeptically to the congressman’s revelations about having an alcohol problem, saying they had no knowledge of it and appearing to imply that the move into rehabilitation may have been an excuse.
Dr. Lauren Williams, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, told the Associated Press, however, that many alcoholics in positions of power hide their addictions.
“It really permeates the person’s life at different stages, and until something drastic happens, they don’t own up and say, `I have a problem,’” Williams said.
The former leadership aide said, “The number one PR problem — there has been no act of contrition. … Whether it’s a letter or a simple statement, the public needs to know that he’s torn up over this, and placing the blame on booze and bad judgment only prolongs the news cycle ... and the fury.”
A second former leadership aide said Foley’s lawyer appeared to be less concerned about image repair and more focused on legal defense.
“It’s purely a legal strategy and purely for a legal defense,” the aide said.
Attending a rehab and the revelations about childhood molestation could serve as a defense and create doubt in a jury’s mind should Foley’s alleged indiscretions land him in court, the aide said.
Former Clinton administration aide Lanny Davis, author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” and head of the Legal Crisis Communications group of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, would not comment on Foley but said that continuing to admit failures after the initial apology is a bad crisis management move.
“A general rule is to apologize, take responsibility, seek help and be quiet,” he said.
Davis said Republicans could end up badly tarnished by the Foley scandal, but Democrats also needed to be careful.
“When the other side forms a circle and starts shooting into the center of it, get out of the way,” he said. “The Democrats’ worst mistake is to try and exploit this issue in a partisan way.”
He advised Democrats to do only two things for political advantage: let the facts come out and call for a full investigation. Democratic leadership has largely stepped aside since the scandal broke last week.
Republicans have, however, broken several “rules” of crisis communication, Davis said.
“The way to handle a crisis is to get out in front, be proactive, take responsibility and move on,” he said.
When Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) first received or gained knowledge of the e-mails, the party should have taken care of the problem by addressing Foley, Davis added, saying, “Instead, he’s defensive, he’s not acknowledging [wrong doing] and going on Rush Limbaugh. He is in a defensive crouch trying to ignore the obvious.”
Hastert has been heavily criticized for his handling of the scandal. He maintains that he addressed the problem as best he could with the information he had at the time. The Speaker says he did not know about the sexually explicit instant message exchange until it was reported last week by ABC news.
“People forgive individuals who take responsibility, they do not forgive people who duck,” the second leadership aide said.