What do you do when your client or CEO pulls something that even you, the PR professional, didn’t see coming (or that, even if you did see it coming, blind-sided you anyway)? It’s a question that the communications team behind disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford must be asking right about now.
Sanford’s undoing has taken a most unusual path. Earlier this week, after being questioned about Sanford’s whereabouts, his staff said the governor was hiking in the Appalachian Trail. Specifically, Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s communications director, said in an email to reporters, “I apologize for taking so long to send this update, and was waiting to see if [we had] a more definitive idea of what part of the trail he was on before we did so.”
That was June 22. By June 24, it was clear that Sanford wasn’t in Appalachia at all, but in Argentina. In a bizarre turn of events, he held a press conference after his arrival back in South Carolina, admitting that, not only had he misled the public about his whereabouts, but he had gone to Argentina to visit his mistress.
As the sordid details of the whole affair continue to emerge (most recently with the publication of email exchanges between Sanford and his paramour), one thing is certain: his communications team is in all-out crisis mode. How much or how little they knew about his jaunt abroad is still in question, but it hardly matters. Either possible scenario—that they were hiding information at Sanford’s request or that they were communicating what, at the time, they believed to be true—brings up compelling PR dilemmas.
In the former scenario’s case, the failure to communicate is always a bad plan, as nothing gets by the public these days. Case in point: The firestorm surrounding Apple’s failure to disclose news of CEO Steve Jobs’ liver transplant until two months after the surgery has led many of the brand’s loyal stakeholders to feel deceived.
The comparison between Jobs’ liver transplant and Sanford’s extramarital activities is tenuous, to be sure, but both reputational crises represent how quickly the mighty can fall when transparent communications isn’t the number-one priority. Had Sanford’s PR staff chosen to take a more logical approach—announcing the affair up-front so a disappearing act wasn’t necessary—the governor’s ability to bounce back likely would be far greater (he can kiss the 2012 presidential election goodbye).
That said, if his team really did think he was getting in touch with nature, it’s hard to blame their ambiguity early on. The decision to have Sanford deliver a press conference AND open the floor to questions was clearly a necessary one. Unfortunately, though, it’s too little too late.
Ultimately, what are the communications lessons that can be learned from the current Sanford scandal? Is his team’s response going to go down as a textbook example of how NOT to communicate during a crisis?
By Courtney Barnes