I wrote this up a while ago but didn’t want to post it while it was unfolding. But the dust has long settled so here you go:
It’s not often you’re handed a gold standard example of how not to handle a PR crisis situation. It’s even more rare to be handed a gold standard example of why communications consultants tend to earn their pay. And for the hat trick, you get two of them in one day.
Bear with me cause this is one doozy of a blog post.
Recently, John Edwards admitted to what many of us blogger political junkies had started to figure was true: That he had indeed had the very affair he had so strenuously and self righteously denied over the past several months.
I don’t care about the affair itself and I’m not judging the infidelity itself. That’s not what the post is about. When I heard the confirmation while listening to CNN on the road my first thought was "well he’ll issue a statement and disappear for a while and wow crap this must be horrible for his wife"
Then Edwards issued his statement, followed by his wife issuing a statement. And immediately upon hearing both, I knew that these two individuals probably sunk any chances for a role in public policy for a long time.
So what I will do however, is break down the epic fail of John Edwards response, and the shameless epic fail of his wife’s public response (a figure I had high regard for before her statement was issued).
First let’s clear out the obvious communication context by stating the facts: Senator John Edwards carried on an affair with a campaign worker prior to announcing his run for the Presidency of the United States, kept this affair secret from his campaign staff, doners, volunteers, supporters, and the public. Then, when confronted with mounting evidence of the affair, denounced the reporting of the affair, denied the affair, and refused to answer the most basic questions about the affair. Then, he admitted the affair. His wife was apprised of the affair, prior to Edwards making his run.
So Senator Edwards issues the following statement which I will break down section by section:
In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs.
Ok this statement is clear, but 2006 seems to be an odd call out. Listing the year specifically leads to many questions about timelines.
I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. Although I was honest in every painful detail with my family, I did not tell the public.
An unusual choice to implicate your wife and yourself in a decision to leave something that could be discovered secret that, rightly or wrongly, tends to end presidential bids. It’s tough to call this part a mistake, but it certainly compounds the issue from "I had an affair" to "I’ve been lying to you people for *years*".
When a supermarket tabloid told a version of the story, I used the fact that the story contained many falsities to deny it. But being 99 percent honest is no longer enough.
The level of hubris and defensiveness in this statement is off the charts and will probably go down in history as challenging "depends on what the definition of "is" is" as arrogantly claiming the high ground. I’d love to know who told him being 99% honest is ever "enough" would be a good way to generate empathy. And supermarket tabloid or not, they were right from the beginning.
I was and am ashamed of my conduct and choices, and I had hoped that it would never become public. With my family, I took responsibility for my actions in 2006–
Hrmm 2006 mentioned again. The second time now really prompts hard questions because it sounds like he’s scoping it so specifically that there must be a reason.
–and today I take full responsibility publicly. But that misconduct took place for a short period in 2006. It ended then.
Hrmmm 2006 mentioned AGAIN. This is a classic maneuver to lay down fact by repeating it over and over again. Why does he keep saying 2006? Because his girlfriend’s baby was born in 2008, so by repeating 2006 many times in this statement he lays the groundwork to convince the listener there is just no way he could be the father. It also serves the purpose of pretending this is "ancient history." Despite the fact he was caught at a hotel with her and the baby two weeks ago.
Unfortunately it prompts people to investigate, since this entire situation is based off repeated assertions to begin with.
I am and have been willing to take any test necessary to establish the fact that I am not the father of any baby, and I am truly hopeful that a test will be done so this fact can be definitively established.
Note the word hopeful here. This is perception manipulation at it’s most bare. He gets to be hopeful because the final decision rests with the mistress. And there’s just no way she’s going to allow a paternity test. (Subsequently the mother did indeed deny a paternity test saying the child had been through enough) I doubt any paternity test will ever happen. That’s fine, it’s certainly none of the public’s business who the father is. But note how clever this statement attempts to be. He’s happy to take a test! Willing! Hopeful!
I only know that the apparent father has said publicly that he is the father of the baby. I also have not been engaged in any activity of any description that requested, agreed to or supported payments of any kind to the woman or to the apparent father of the baby.
Note that he doesn’t mention he ever had "knowledge" of. Remember Edwards is a lawyer. He could not request, not agree to, and not support any payments to the mother by third parties and those payments still occur with his knowledge. I’m not saying for sure he knew, I’m saying this part of the statement is notable for what’s missing, not what is there. Given the attempts at being clever up till now, it’s rather glaring.
It is inadequate to say to the people who believed in me that I am sorry, as it is inadequate to say to the people who love me that I am sorry. In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up — feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself.
The latter half of this section is so filled with defensive narcissistic fail that it defies belief. Note especially that he has "already beaten up myself" past tense. So he’s done with all that.
I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help.
Really? stripped bare? Over a sex scandal? Have you been spanked too? Maybe tied up a little? I can’t tell if he’s being farcical or just really incompetent here. Who uses the phrase stripped bare to describe their own sex scandal?
I have given a complete interview on this matter and having done so, will have nothing more to say.
Oh yes he will. He just thinks he won’t.
This statement is rare in it’s exhibition of all the failures people do in crisis communications: #1 the principle person wrote it himself without any review from anyone else, you can tell. #2, it exhibits a requisite mixture of apology and faux contrition with outright defensiveness and churlish language. #3, it attempts to halt all further conversation.
Now, the victim in all this, besides the donor’s, supporters, and staff, and volunteers, is first and foremost Elizabeth Edwards, a figure that prior to today I would have said, health permitting, needs to be Senator Obama’s Health Czar should he be elected. She issues the following statement, again I will break it down section by section.
Our family has been through a lot. Some caused by nature, some caused by human weakness, and some most recently caused by the desire for sensationalism and profit without any regard for the human consequences. None of these has been easy. But we have stood with one another through them all. Although John believes he should stand alone and take the consequences of his action now, when the door closes behind him, he has his family waiting for him.
A lot of what? And again note the attack, like her husband’s attempt, to lay the situation at the feet of the people who uncovered an ongoing lie. The last sentence however let me think at first the opening was just an aberration and an honest expression of anger at having to go through this.
John made a terrible mistake in 2006. The fact that it is a mistake that many others have made before him did not make it any easier for me to hear when he told me what he had done. But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007. This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well. Because of a recent string of hurtful and absurd lies in a tabloid publication, because of a picture falsely suggesting that John was spending time with a child it wrongly alleged he had fathered outside our marriage, our private matter could no longer be wholly private. The pain of the long journey since 2006 was about to be renewed.
Note the 2006 yet again. This is no less than shameful political manipulation, and a cynical defense of indefensible behavior by trying to hide it behind "painful private family matter". Again, I’m not talking about the affair here. I’m talking about attempting to cover it up, and when caught, saying you covered it up because they got one of the facts wrong, a fact that we’ll probably never know because people are refusing tests.
Consider. His wife was fully aware of his infidelity and concealment of it prior to his announcing a run for the Presidency. Now, whether or not we agree or disagree that private infidelity should impact political races, the fact is that it does. Had John Edwards been the nominee of the democratic party today the race would effectively be over. And all the while he publicly denied the affair despite all the evidence, she participated in that lie as well.
John has spoken in a long on-camera interview. Admitting one’s mistakes is a hard thing for anyone to do. I am proud of the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame. The toll on our family of news helicopters over our house and reporters in our driveway is yet unknown. But now the truth is out, and the repair work that began in 2006 will continue. I ask that the public, who expressed concern about the harm John’s conduct has done to us, think also about the real harm that the present voyeurism does and give me and my family the privacy we need at this time.
Well of course she has to state she’s proud, she was complicit in covering it up. And note too in the second sentence the same type of attempt yet again to play victim at the hands of a malicious media and not because, say, your husband betrayed you and all his followers.
You can tell clearly that each of these statements was written by the individuals and not any communications people working for them. Each statement is too clever by half, and employs some very transparent attempts at manipulation that are so naked as to be laughable. Further, instead of admitting the central fact and claiming beyond that it’s no one’s business, each weirdly implicates the other by scoping time frame to 2006, prior to his run. I have to assume that was done to avoid questions about being the father of the baby but again, it means that prior to his run for the presidency he covered up an affair. Which means he never let his campaign staff know that this could come out at any time, because they surely would have counseled him to just admit it up front.
Both statements, to me, represent a good standard for how not to handle things. I noted that night that communications people from the campaign appeared severely peeved when reporters kept hitting them with the statements and you could tell they had been not only left out of the loop, they found out about his admitting the affair from his statement.
Lessons learned? If you pay people to help you communicate, let them help you communicate. #2, don’t write your statements yourself without having them reviewed with close advisors. #3, don’t attack those that uncovered the lie. It serves no purpose. #4, try not to make things worse than they already are.
My guess is we won’t be hearing from either Edwards for a long time.