Opinion

When will they ever learn?

Photo of Lanny Davis
Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
  • See All Articles
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Bio

      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

As obvious as are the fundamental rules of effective crisis management, time-tested over the ages, it is amazing how often the same mistakes are made by politicians and companies in the midst of a crisis.

In politics, the most famous case of crisis mismanagement is Watergate; summed up by Nixon presidential assistant John Ehrlichman’s famous wrong-headed strategy that he called the “modified limited hangout,” a little bit of truth dribbled out, but not all of it.

Everyone who has served in the White House has faced the test of either biting the bullet and getting all the facts out proactively or holding back and hoping the story goes away. Unfortunately, the Obama White House chose the latter strategy when it came to the Solyndra loan guarantee. At first the White House referred questioners to the Energy Department and resisted turning over White House emails that might have had political considerations. Then — shockingly — the emails leaked, dribble by dribble, and the end result was the also shocking conclusion that this was a matter of poor judgment, not dishonesty or corruption.

Just recently we have seen a classic case of crisis mismanagement in the business world in the way that Carnival Cruise Lines mishandled the travesty of one of its ships, the Triumphfloating helplessly 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship left Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7, for what was supposed to be a four-day cruise. But then it lost its power and propulsion system after a fire broke out in the aft engine room.

For days there was little information from Carnival headquarters in Miami as to what happened or why, or when and where the passengers would be returned to safety. Even families of passengers couldn’t get basic information, complaining to the media about the absence of informed representatives from Carnival. They were never given adequate explanation as to why the ship wasn’t tugged to the nearby port in Presso, Mexico, for example, rather than waiting for days more, while passengers suffered onboard the smelly ship, to be taken to Mobile, Ala.

This was the second time in about a year that Carnival had failed the fundamental rules of crisis management. Back in January 2012, one of it ships owned by a foreign subsidiary ran aground near an island off the Tuscany Coast of Italy. The ship tilted sideways and 32 people died.

Carnival’s reaction back then was, basically, silence. The blame was placed on the captain, who allowed the ship to get too close to the island because — I am not making this up — he said he was distracted because he was on his cell phone. It appeared that their legal position — which appeared to have validity — was that the parent company was not liable because it was not the legal owner or operator of the ship. Was it concern about legal liability that caused the senior management in Miami to avoid visiting the site of the tragedy and giving personal condolences to the grieving families?