Crisis communications’ calamitous cliché caucus

Jonathan Wilcox Contributor
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In ancient Greece, theater performances often included a group of characters off stage that provided background information to the audience. The primary purpose of this “Greek chorus” was to instruct how an ideal audience should react to the humor, drama or mystery of any particular plot.

Live theater in America may go in and out of style, but for the PR and crisis communications industries, the “Greek chorus” has morphed into a “cliché chorus” present at nearly every performance, flawlessly instructing that any disgraced individual or entity could have prevailed in any public challenge — if only they took heed of the chorus.

Those who watched Rep. Anthony Weiner’s confessional press conference may have only seen the halting, tearful public man brought to public humiliation. But just off stage, the crisis communications’ cliché chorus was there, jockeying for position, business cards in hand.

One might conclude Weiner’s image is irreparably damaged because of his political profile, bizarre behavior and the sexual nature of its specifics. But that just demonstrates how little you know and how much you need to learn from the experts. Weiner wasn’t ruined because of his conduct — their reasoning goes — but because of how he handled it.

And the message is implicit: If he had only listened to me (or hired us!), he could have navigated his troubled waters and sailed ahead in the supple arms of the chorus.

The crisis communications cacophony of clichés can get awfully loud — such as this prime selection of the industry’s conventional wisdom. It is well worth analyzing.

Get the facts and your goal straight before you start talking/tweeting/statementing.

Translated from the original quasi-English, no advice from the cliché chorus ever omits this self-serving standby. “Get the facts straight” may sound sensible, but it is simply absurd advice for someone whose straight facts will destroy them. Tell us, Congressman: Was it six women? Or 26? Was it sexual banter? Or something more (ahem) personal? Were they all adults? Or did any reveal they were underage? Getting his facts straight would have ended Weiner’s career faster than his press conference did.

Issue a statement and shut your mouth.

Unless that statement is “I resign,” how could Weiner have done this? His entire political career was infused by a glib nature and snark artistry. If he had revealed even a portion of his troubling truth — one certain to become revealed and, therefore, more troubling — no issued statement or shut mouth could have dealt with the blowback.

The press isn’t your friend

Perhaps the press really wasn’t Weiner’s friend, but they sure were his oxygen. And this superficial sloganeering is belied by the fact that the press stood by as stenographers to Weiner and dutifully reported every farfetched detail of his “I was hacked” story. With allies like the press, who needs friends?

Let others do the talking. Do not become the political analyst of your own problem.

Unfortunately for the Cliché Caucus, Weiner did exactly this. He knew an old girlfriend would use her punditry position to advance his story, which Kirsten Powers did with gusto. He knew the House Democrats would protect him, just as they did Gary Condit as a serious scandal consumed him. He knew the mainstream media would soft-pedal his obvious inconsistencies, attack Andrew Breitbart and decry that Weiner’s story was dominating the headlines. How’d that work out for him?

The cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Try to stifle your yawn long enough to think through this trite reasoning. In what way is Weiner’s story of being hacked worse than his transmission of degrading nude pictures to various women? How is calling a CNN producer a “jackass” more controversial than conducting cybersex chats in his Congressional office?

Anthony Weiner told his lies because he tried to emerge intact from his mistakes. And he didn’t admit anything because he couldn’t do so and still maintain his public image or political power. Weiner gambled he could deny the truth, disparage his doubters and wait for the scandal to pass. He got a lot closer to winning than we care to admit.

In the end, Weiner wasn’t felled because he declined to use the right PR tactics or flunked Crisis Communications 101. He’s finished because he’s a borderline psycho. Do not believe for a minute that the cliché chorus could have saved him.

Jonathan Wilcox is a former speechwriter for California Governor Pete Wilson and Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.