The chaotic state of political affairs in Virginia is a good reminder that skeletons in the closet have a nasty habit of popping their head out of the door.
Closet skeletons are a dimension of crisis preparation that is frequently overlooked in the mistaken judgment that what happened long ago will never be uncovered. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Virginians and the rest of America who pays attention to the news have discovered, that’s just not true. An obscure medical school yearbook picture can come back to haunt you.
An old skeleton liberated from the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, as Northam’s fumbling reaction illustrated. It is like an ambush interview on steroids. You have to address the unexpected surfacing of the skeleton and be judged on how you handle the surprise. As with any other crisis, being surprised is a big problem in responding credibly.
To err is human, as Alexander Pope observed, and to forgive is divine. The trouble is the vast majority of people need a reason to forgive. The unprepared politician, corporate executives , celebrity or nonprofit leader is ill-equipped to ask for forgiveness. Being prepared doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, but it helps.
Rummaging around in your past life in search of old skeletons may be uncomfortable – and unsettling for family members, friends and colleagues. But discomfort and private embarrassment seem like a small price to pay in the face of public disgrace.
The rummaging can have salutary benefits by revealing unacknowledged attitudes that present teachable moments. Using Northam’s situation as an example, if he had recalled the yearbook – or, more important, his earlier flippant attitudes about blackface, he could have turned his “surprise” into an epiphany. Admitting he failed to realize how blackface offended African-Americans, Northam could have displayed a capacity to open his eyes and mind to new realities, much like Virginians have had to face up to the reality that many confederate statues were erected as imposing Jim Crow-era reminders to black Virginians to “know their place.”
People running for public office should conduct thorough personal audits to identify any problematic skeletons in their past – or present. They should start by listing the transgressions before leaping to justifications. This is not really all that much different from a candid and thorough issue audit organizations should undertake to prepare crisis communications plans. The main difference is ranking probability.
The owner of a skyscraper should consider an elevator accident in an issue audit, but probably doesn’t need to worry all that much about an elevator crashing into the basement. Political candidates and officeholders can’t discount anything, as Northam’s yearbook page attests. The emphasis for candidates and officeholders is to brainstorm how to respond if their skeleton is exposed.
Northam again proves illustrative. After his initial equivocation, Northam has earned some respect by dedicating the remainder of his gubernatorial term, assuming he gets to serve that long, to addressing issues of racial justice. If he had thought about the possibility of this blackface skeleton tumbling out of his closet, Northam could have responded more surefootedly and powerfully. His lack of preparation also showed through over the weekend during a relatively sympathetic interview with Gayle King of CBS News when she corrected his reference to Virginia’s racial past of importing “indentured servants” by saying, “You mean slaves.”
Changing times and norms have made behavior tolerated in the past intolerable in the present. In reality, sexual abuse and racial insensitivity were never okay. Victims were ignored or even punished. What’s really changed is that the spying eyes of social media make it harder for perpetrators to laugh off their bad acts. Victims have the tools to expose and punish them.
Like it or deplore it, you would be smart to prepare for it. Closet walls aren’t what they used to be.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.