When it comes to communications during a crisis, the first rule of thumb is “Do No Harm.” While we’ll learn how the current crisis Governor Ralph Northam faces over a racist yearbook photo ends in coming days, it’s clear that the governor has mishandled this from a communications perspective.
First, it’s important to note that this photo and what it depicts is abhorrent. It was not appropriate in 1984. It is not appropriate now. It is not appropriate ever.
It remains unclear whether the governor was one of the people in the picture, but it does provide a bright, shining example of what not to do in a crisis. As a result, we can learn a few lessons (and ways to prevent missteps) from how this issue was handled.
DON’T RUSH TO RESPOND
When sources unearthed this yearbook photo, Northam initially said that he was one of the people in the photo. He said: “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
Whether it was a rush to react or apologize, Northam admitted that he was one of the individuals in the offensive picture. He can’t take that back (though he’s trying). If, as he initially admitted, he was one of the individuals in the picture, he should have owned up to it, apologized and talked about how he can learn from this and build a bigger discussion around race in America. If he wasn’t in the picture, he should have stated that in his first comments.
Instead, Northam violated the first rule of crisis communications: do no harm. If you don’t have all the facts, don’t address the facts. You can express your feelings about the issue, and let stakeholders know that you’re gathering information. The initial response is the most important, and a hasty statement or press conference often does more harm than good.
DON’T CHANGE YOUR STORY
Less than 24 hours after the initial process, Northam held a press conference to say that he wasn’t in the photo, and he’d remember because he had darkened his face in another instance for a dance contest to resemble Michael Jackson. Thankfully, his wife told him not to do the moonwalk when a reporter asked – yes, that happened.
If a photo of the current governor of Virginia either dressed as a KKK member or wearing “blackface” isn’t hard enough to deal with, Northam lost more credibility by changing his story and claiming he was not in the picture. Instead of answering questions and providing a path forward, he raised more concerns and did little to slow calls for his resignation.
ARTICULATE A CLEAR PATH FORWARD
Northam meant to quell calls for his resignation in his second press conference. From a communications perspective, he failed miserably. A notable list of groups and politicians, on both sides of the aisle, continue to call for his resignation – both those in his home state and around the country.
While he continues to dig his heels in, Virginia is in one of the busiest times of the year for its legislature. The distraction of Northam’s continued waffling, and now calls for the Lieutenant Governor to resign over sexual misconduct allegations, is impeding the government to do its job efficiently and effectively. In order to move beyond a crisis, its important to articulate the path forward. This helps to project stability and emphasize that a plan is in place (or is being developed quickly).
Northam has not been well served by campaign staff or communications advisors, who not only should have known about the picture in the first place, but should have had a crisis communications plan in place and helped the governor stick to it. As a result of the mishandled communications, this story will continue to occupy the news cycle. Time will tell if he will resign, but the situation underscores the importance of one’s initial response in a crisis. It sets the tone and should never cause further damage.