Your elected office holder has just been photographed coming out of a seedy hotel, cigarette dangling, tie askew and he’s carrying a sheep. You are tasked with a public response. What do you do?
Here are the options:
Denial. That’s not my Senator and that’s not his sheep. The stronger the denial the better, but denial is not really an option if the facts are true. Always be careful that if you are denying public official behavior, you are absolutely sure it did not occur.
Non-denial denial. That doesn’t appear to be my Senator or his sheep. The qualifier allows you to backtrack later on, while denying the substance of any charge up front. This tactic is particularly handy if the facts ultimately prove your Senator is innocent.
Obfuscation. Depends on what you mean by Senator and can you be sure it was a sheep? This puts doubt in the mind of the accuser, gives you more time to get the facts and is really a stalling tactic. At some point, you’ll have to answer the question. (See, “It depends on what your definition of “is” is.)
The noble stall. A very effective technique. A mistake has occurred and as soon as we ascertain the facts we will get back to you. The “catch-all” is the fact a mistake has been made without attributing who made it. The spokesperson retains their credibility while allowing them time to figure out what the hell your Senator was thinking.
Proudly accept responsibility. My personal favorite. That’s my Senator, that’s his sheep. You got a problem with that?
This is really the Ollie North approach. You’re caught red handed doing something illegal or unethical but you turn the moral tables around on your accusers. “I did it, I’m glad I did it and if I get a chance I would do it again.” This is particularly effective when there is a higher moral reason for the behavior. It is especially effective when given immunity from prosecution for your testimony. In fact, if under immunity it is best to admit everything you’ve ever done in your life. Even if they prosecute you later, there is a good chance it will get kicked on appeal.
Mea Culpa. That was the Senator and he is extremely sorry for any pain he has caused his family, constituents and colleagues. Ghandi said, “A sincere apology, followed by a promise never to do the act again is the highest form of contrition.” The public is cynical, but not mean-spirited. This form of response is designed to give the Senator time to rebuild his image before the next election.
No comment. This is not a response, it is an admission. It must be used as a last resort only when answering any question that would cause you to lie. Lying is never an option.
It is usually the lie or cover-up that causes people to resign from office. Unless the initial act is so heinous or illegal it cannot be forgiven.
In the final analysis, whether your elected official has to resign will usually depend on their initial response. In this case, a public official could usually survive politically—unless the sheep talks.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.