The PR Implications of Judge Kavanaugh’s Situation

News broke this weekend when Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s heretofore-anonymous accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, came forward alleging Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her when the two were at a party in high school. This makes the likelihood that he’ll be approved for a lifetime appointment as a Supreme Court justice more precarious than it was at this time last week. The situation also offers PR takeaways, including some from crisis communications.

The news that his accuser has stepped forward and provided her identity puts Judge Kavanaugh's candidacy firmly in another court: the court of public opinion. It's a venue where many PR crises are decided, as PR pros know well, a court where facts and legal arguments are sometimes immaterial. In this court, public perception is king.

This change in the situation would seem to be bad news for Kavanaugh, particularly because the country is in the middle of the #MeToo and #TimesUp era.

Investigations and Time

This morning, advocacy groups called for an investigation of the alleged incident between Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh. Investigations often are standard in the PR 101 crisis playbook. In this heated #MeToo #TimesUp moment, though, those accused of sexual harassment are sometimes dethroned so quickly that there’s no time for an investigation.

There’s also no time for crisis PR in such instances, either, as PR pros who vied for the crisis business of Charlie Rose, Matt LauerGarrison Keillor and Louis C.K. discovered.

In the case of Les Moonves, the now-former CBS president and board chairman, a pair of articles in The New Yorker containing allegations prompted him to resign September 9. The internal investigation of allegations against Moonves has yet to be finished.

To its credit, CBS assured the public that its investigation will continue regardless. On the other hand, CBS made the correct PR move since the case remains squarely in the court of public opinion. CBS was in the crosshairs ever since it took an unorthodox approach to the crisis and allowed Moonves to remain in his job while he was being investigated.

Keeping the situation alive, it now appears CBS sat on knowledge of the allegations for months. It’s even suggested Moonves informed select board members of allegations a while ago. Despite Moonves’ resignation, CBS is far from out of the woods in terms of brand reputation.

Looking to November

Similarly, the Kavanaugh nomination may be far more than a mere moment in time. Electoral politics will need to be factored into the administration's thinking as November looms. Should the Kavanaugh nomination proceed, successful or not, the Republican Party could pay a price with female voters at the polls.  It could be particularly difficult if Ford's story seems to be credible in the court of public opinion and Kavanaugh is approved regardless. Also a factor: this November will see elections where more women are running than ever. No doubt Republican messaging will be flavored with these understandings.

When a savvy brand is under attack, communicators often are tasked with assessing the landscape and helping craft a response the public will interpret as appropriate. Kavanaugh's response was swift and direct; he "categorically" and emphatically denied the accusations Ford made. A more PR-appropriate response might have included content about the importance of respecting and believing women.

A Tactful White House

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway's statement on the matter was more tactful and better from a PR standpoint. Of Kavanaugh's accuser Conway said, “She should not be insulted. She should not be ignored. She should testify under oath, and she should do it on Capitol Hill.” President Trump’s late-afternoon response today seemed to echo elements of Conway’s. The president too said he favored going “through a full process" to air Ford's allegations, though he added Kavanaugh “is somebody very special."

In the early evening it appeared the Senate Judiciary Committee would comply with the president's wishes, setting up a showdown between Kavanaugh and Ford, with both accuser and accused testifying in public.

Speaking of protecting one's reputation, it cannot be underestimated how big a hurdle it was for Ford to emerge from anonymity. Her life will never be the same, of course. By speaking out, she's been vaulted into the realm of a public figure, where she's being attacked viciously on social media. And the avalanche likely is just getting started. While Ford has hired legal counsel, retaining a PR pro might be a judicious move too.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein