Clinton and Bungled Crisis Response

60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

The continuing saga of Hillary Clinton and her private email server serves as a fresh reminder that how you respond to a crisis is what influences public opinion.

Lanny Davis, former counsel to President Clinton and a Hillary Clinton supporter, shared a telling observation from his recent visit to Iowa:

"I was attending the Iowa Cubs (AAA minor-league team) baseball game. Interestingly, out of dozens of people I sought out and talked to about [Hillary] Clinton, their focus was not concern about her use of emails or housing them on her own secure server, but rather, what they thought was her absence of immediate transparency and explanation as to what happened and why."

In a piece written for "The Hill," Davis attributes Clinton's precipitous 13 percent fall in the latest Des Moines Register poll to her mishandling of the email server issue. He bolsters that conclusion by noting the poll shows Clinton still enjoys high favorability ratings (seven out of 10 Democrats hold a favorable impression) and 60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious.

What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue. Her death-by-a-thousand-cuts response has allowed the issue to fester in public and opened the door to questions about her trustworthiness, a nagging worry that has some history with the Clintons.

What's most evident and disappointing is that Clinton has missed an opportunity to enhance her political reputation by showing she can be trusted. Instead, Clinton treated the issue initially as insignificant and later made light of her decision to use private email while secretary of state. She turned over emails only after pressure built to do so. She failed to see the potential danger in this issue and, therefore, didn't take bold steps to own it and see that it was vetted fully as soon as possible.

Clinton is hardly alone in missing opportunities to build trust through a crisis. Often times it is the smartest person in the room who makes the dumbest mistake when it comes to crisis response.

Whether the email episode will derail Clinton's trip to the Democratic presidential nomination and ultimately the White House remains to be seen. But without question, Clinton has made the journey harder by how she mishandled this crisis and missed a chance to make it easier.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

Solve Problems, Not Find Fault

The website rollout of your signature achievement is an unmitigated disaster. And the chancellor of Germany learns the United States has been poking its spying nose into her smart phone text messages. Time to take a vacation or time to shoulder the blame?

Most blunders don't rise to the level of those facing President Obama. And regardless how he chooses to respond, the smart response for the person in charge is to own the problem, even if it isn't his or her fault.

Granted, this is easier said than done. Legal advisors may warn against blindly accepting liability. Financial advisors may urge caution to avoid fines and costly restitution. Your own inner voice may resist taking the blame, wishing instead to transfer all your energy to the end of your finger pointed in someone else's direction.

However, there is abundant evidence that people can forgive mistakes, but resent equivocation or dissembling. Mostly what people want to hear is a little sympathy for what happened and a lot of action to fix the problem so it doesn't happen again.

Owning a problem shouldn't be seen as a weak or defensive posture. Stepping up and taking charge can project a confidence-building image, an image based on action rather than ambivalence.

Wheat Ranchers Sow Seeds of Transparency

Discovery of rogue Roundup-resistant wheat plants on one Eastern Oregon farm could lead to suspended wheat exports and has prompted U.S. wheat exporters to talk candidly and directly with their international customers about the issue.U.S. wheat exporters are demonstrating the business value of transparent communications. They are talking directly to their overseas customers, telling their story about the recent discovery of Roundup-resistant wheat in Eastern Oregon. 

Wheat ranchers don't want to jeopardize their $8.1 billion per year in exports to nations wary about human consumption of genetically modified foods. According to Bloomberg News, Japan already has suspended wheat imports from the United States pending further findings by U.S. agriculture officials. Other importers may follow suit.

A similar episode occurred in 2006 when unapproved genetically modified rice was detected in the U.S. harvest. The discovery caused prices to plummet and exports to slow and ultimately led to a $750,000 settlement between the developer of the field-test rice and 11,000 American farmers.

Monsanto dropped its field-testing of Roundup-resistant wheat in 2004 after wheat ranchers said it could threaten exports, even though the USDA concluded the wheat was safe for human consumption.

The Battle for Trust

To win public issues and policy debates, you need more than good facts. You need to battle for trust to win over supporters and overwhelm opponents.Issue managers must do more than dispense facts. They must battle for trust.

Widespread skepticism is one of the biggest handicaps in trying to manage a public issue. You may have all the facts and figures, but if neighbors, community activists and even policymakers don't believe they are true, you are nowhere. 

There is no formula for building trust, but there are some tried and true principles in the battle for trust. Here are some of them: 

Tell Your Story — the Whole Story

You need to tell your story, but you gain credibility by telling the whole story. Better to hear it all — good and bad — from you than from your opponents.

Telling the whole story won't automatically build trust, but it establishes you are trustworthy, which is a very good beginning in the battle for trust.

Be Proactive, Don't Wait