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Damage Control: 7 Ways Sanford Has Made Things Harder on Himself
Posted By jwilkes - Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 at 3:23 PM
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It really doesn’t take a maser of political trickery to navigate one’s way through a political scandal. But based on the current trajectory of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s attempt, it kind of makes you wonder: exactly where (if anywhere at all) is this guy getting his advice?

News that the South Carolina Governor went missing surfaced sometime around Friday, June 19th. By Monday, calls for the Governor’s office to disclose his location reached a fevered pitch, despite a few lame attempts to placate the media by telling them he was out hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

(Humorously, there was some speculation that Sanford had decided to keep his trip quiet because the June 21 was "Naked Hiking Day," as celebrated by some hikers who hit the dusty trail annually on the first day of Summer wearing nothing more than Tevas and a smile. Somehow, the thought of the already sun kissed governor strolling down the trail in the buff is…well, uncouth. The staff meeting had to be awkward for the guy who had piped up and said, "I know! Let’s tell them he went hiking!")

The hiking story gave way to the admission of a trip to Argentina to see his lover, which in turn led to a disclosure that he kinda-sorta did it before on the taxpayers’ dime, after which time he upped his previous estimate of the actual number of times he’d visited his Argentine mistress, and ultimately the revelation that she wasn’t exactly the first woman with whom he’d stepped out on his wife. Then came the coup d’ gras: Sanford called his mistress his "soul mate," called his tryst a "love story," and in the next breath, expressed his commitment to his wife. Ouch.

Sanford is so far from being the first politician to step out on his wife. Giuliani, Clinton, Gingrich, Vitter, and countless others have copped to an affair and still managed to carry on successful public careers. Even if we are to assume that Sanford used taxpayer money to fund parts of his little love excursions, don’t forget: Giuliani had the NYPD chauffeuring his girlfriend, Judith Nathan, around New York while he was still married to wife number two. And THEN he ran for president.

So, why does this look so bad for Sanford? The answer is damage control, or perhaps a lack thereof. What’s become immensely clear is that either no one is advising Sanford, or he’s just not listening. The embattled governor has made one breathtaking mistake after another, which- when taken together- could spell the end of his political career. And they didn’t have to.

Let’s take a look at the missteps he and his staff have taken so far. We won’t even touch the fact that he ditched his family on Father’s Day or that his staff couldn’t come up with a better response then, "Gee, we don’t know where he is." We’ll just start from the moment he got back to South Carolina. And keep in mind, it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback all of this.

1. Never offer a mea culpa off the cuff.

Sanford came back and immediately announced a press conference, where he planned to admit his wrongdoing. But Sanford gave his apology off the top of his head, in a long rambling diatribe filled with umms and yall’s, and that wasn’t lost on media pundits. That’s not a, "hey guys, guess what" kind of press conference. He should have walked out with a prepared statement, and just focused on getting some real sincerity on the record. Now, Senator John Ensign probably isn’t getting much praise lately, given his own admission to an affair the previous week. But take a look at his presser:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQX1-aOM9Bg

Much more professional, much more statesmanlike than Sanford’s deal.

2. Get it all out the first time.

Sanford seems Hell bent on seeing just how much he can squeeze into the epitaph of his political headstone: (1) Disappearing Governor (2) Explained Absence, Admitted to Argentinian Tryst (3) In What He Called a "Love Story" With His "Soul Mate" (4) Plus a "Handful" of Other Women Over the Years. The hits came one after another, instead of in one, painful interview or press conference. An admission has to be like a band-aid, otherwise it dominates an endless number of news cycles. This is one of those instances where telling the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" might be a good idea. Because everything you leave out that you have to explain down the road just makes you look like a liar…and, well, you are.

3. Media blackout.

After making an admission like that, you have to go dark for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. That means no interviews, no phone calls with the press, nothing. If there are pressing questions to be answered, do it through the communications director, the guy whose job it is to answer press inquiries. Sanford made a big mistake sitting down with reporters while the story was still hot, and while people were ravenously seeking answers. It’s difficult to resist the urge to go out an explain ones’ self. But really think back on it: how often do you try to give an explanation for something you’ve done wrong and you just end up making it worse? Sometimes it’s better to accept the fact that there isn’t a reasonable explanation. You just messed up, and "I’m sorry" is all that you can say.

4. Choose your forum.

Mark Sanford sat down with the AP to give his disastrous interview in which he declared his mistress his, "soul mate." I’m not saying the AP is enemy territory, but a conservative Republican bound to catch a little crossfire there. Sanford really needed to take the opportunity to discuss how remorseful he was, and if he’s in a position in which he feels like he has to defend himself, that’s a bad scenario. He needed a friendly forum to sit and simply answer for his wrongdoing. To an extent, it’s OK to get some softball questions if, in the end, it elucidates the same information that would have come out of an adversarial confrontation with someone who is just waiting for him to trip up.

5. Answer questions once and only once.

John Edwards did this surprisingly well. He arranged a sit-down and allowed the interviewer to ask whatever questions they wanted to. And after he’d laid all his cards on the table, he said, "that’s it." Any time other journalists had questions, he simply referred them back to his original statement. That’s a great move. If there is no new information, no new comment, there’s no story. It’s yesterday’s news.

6. Apologize, and keep looking forward.

When you’re saying you’re sorry, there’s one message, and one message only: "I’m sorry." Not "I’m sorry and here’s why I did what I did." From there, you have to avoid looking back for answers, even if you feel that it might make people less angry or resentful. It won’t.

7. Get to work.

Nothing says, "this is behind me," like actually putting it behind you and getting to the business of running the state. People get mired in political scandals because it becomes the only thing they deal with. And when the press says, "He can’t competently perform his job anymore," they’re right. So get back to work. Propose new legislation. Sign a bill. Move on. We tell kids that "actions speak louder than words," and yet we can’t seem to follow that advice ourselves. Politicians seem far more concerned with getting their story out than with actually convincing the people why they should keep their jobs.



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Discussion:
who goes on and on in self-destructive collapse mode in life, work or sports that he or she is 'doing a Sanford'.
[ Posted at 2:56 PM on 7/3/09 | Reply ]
communications teams for many years I am willing to bet the man just won't listen. I can't tell you how many times I saw a well known company hire a crisis communication team, pay them a godawful amount of money and then not listen to a single thing they have to say.

It almost happens as often as they listen, and the same thing always happens. The situation quickly spins out of control and there is nothing that can be done to save them,
[ Posted at 3:34 PM on 7/3/09 | Reply ]

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