Political Crisis Management 101

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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. An unusual column- tongue in cheek to be sure, but quite revealing.
    Takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round but it’s hard to identify with a person who’s built a career that revolves around manipulating public opinion and who places more value on image than on reality.
    Wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the political consultants.”?

  2. Great article, maybe get it on the city agenda the Deb, Chuck and his clowns should be asked to resign for all their lies and back room deals.

    And of course the leader of our country should do the same.

    Vote Romney.

  3. > Here are the options:

    How about electing politicians of high integrity and personal character strongly grounded in honesty, ethical behavior, and morality.

    And then, just expect them to tell the truth.

    Any elected public official the requires the services of Rich Robinson’s Crisis Management Consultancy probably shouldn’t be in office.

    • >Lou:

        BWAHHHHhaaaahaaaa!!!  “Politician” and “High” Integrity in San Jose are mutually exclusive terms.

        And dont get me started on “Truth”…..


    Rich, I like your column because it addresses something that has been bothering me quite a bit lately. So now, I have a question for you. What do you do when you see the Unions, the City, the Mayor, the Council, the City Manager, our Police Chief, and the community all being badly hurt because of money, pride, and politics?

    For the past couple of years, I have watched our City struggle with how to resolve a huge budget deficit. During these years, I’ve seen everyone on both sides of the issue abuse one another both publicly and privately. (By the way, I’d like to point out that the only winners in this whole thing are the criminals who are taking full advantage of our understaffed Police Department, and community members who see crimes and don’t report them.)

    I know there are hurt feelings, frustration, and anger on all sides to the point that some Council members, Union reps, community organizations/members, and public safety servants won’t even attend vigils, and BBQs that are being held to honor and thank public safety servants for their service to our community.

    So Rich, my question to you as a political consultant is: how would you go about bringing all these entities together to resolve the problem, and start working together before more people get hurt or die?

    • People are already dying, people are already hurting and people are crime is going up—partly because if you City policy is not to prioritize property crimes and you continue to publisize it, criminals understand that it is open season. 

      The first thing you have to do is make it a prioriity. 

      As to the mistrust, my own solution would be to bring everyone to the table—everyone.  I would also bring along someone like John Vasconcellos who has years of experience bringing people together for a common purpose.  politicsoftrust.net.

      I agree the hurt feelings, frustration, and political gamesminship have hurt the city.  The Mayor is fond of saying he’s made “tough” decisions.  But he has also gone out of his way to alienate those who work for him.  The brain drain and experience drain is killing the City.

      Leadership is more than just tough decisions, it’s about helping people along.  A great deal is where nobody is happy, but everyone has bought into the solution.  The Governor has done an admirable job at the state level.  There is even hints of bipartisanship on some issuees. 

      The core of politics comes down to trust.  A leader who establishes that trust would never get a traffic ticket from his employees.  You can complain that is a perk of office, but it is well-established.  The exception, of course, is drunk driving or felony behavior. 

      But Mayor’s of big cities don’t get traffic tickets from their cops.  It is sign of how little respect is shown the Mayor by city employees and vice versa.

      The Mayor rarely listens to me, but I know he loves San Jose.  He is bright, normally pragmatic has excellent people skills, has a sense of humor, is normally reasonable and has he gets the worst political advice I’ve ever seen.—to be fair he also has some very good people around him.  Despite his political judgement, he is popular because even if you disagree with him, people in San Jose believe his intinetions are to help this City.

      His legacy (pensions) is legally flawed, he must know that—for he is a good lawyerr.  his baseball stadium is not happening, and historically he is in danger of going down as a popular, but less than effective Mayor—much will ride on the court decision regarding pensions.

      He has coopted a previously unfriendly council my getting certain members to flip and he wasn’t dealt the strongest hand as he has had to lead in the middle of the Bush recession.  Thaat is not an excuse, just a fact.

      I still believe he can bring it together.  He has the talent and the ability—he just needs the will and he needs to get rid of advisors who have him convinced that eliminating your opponents and stomping on their political graves is the key to success.  Because they are not going away.  They don’t have term limits.

      Real power, as noted is Schindler’s List, is ” the ability to let people live”.  If he ever grasps that concept—he may well become the Mayor I think he envisioned for himself and San Jose could still benefit.

      • The tidal wave pension reform is coming, just ask Wisconsin!  How many more millions will SJ pay?  In the illegal ballot challenge?  Because they WILL lose.

  5. Rich:

    I thought I would grade the Obama regime’s “Crisis Management” against your list of options:

    > Here are the options:

    > Denial….
    > Non-denial denial….
    > Obfuscation…..
    > The noble stall….
    > Proudly accept responsibility…..
    > Mea Culpa…..
    > No comment….

    President Barack H. Obama:

    “The President didn’t know ….”

    Seems to be an option you didn’t think of, Rich: ignorance. Not exactly “denial”; just an assertion that nothing happened in Obama’s “reality”.

    Eric Holder:

    “I would never do anything like ordering the secret monitoring of journalist phone records.  What horrible, awful person would even think of doing such a thing?!”

    Again, Rich, you seem to have left “CHUTZPAH” off of your list of options.

    Lois Lerner:

    “I didn’t do it.  No one saw me do it.”

    The Bart Simpson defense. Maybe I’ll have to give you credit for this one, Rich.  We’ll call it “denial” for the time being.  At least until Lois takes a few hits below the waterline and starts taking on water and listing to port.

    Then she’ll need your list from Political Crisis Management 404: Advanced Graduate Seminar.

  6. Rich:

    The more I think about your “Political Crisis Management” options, the more obvious it is to me that you’re really kind of a minor leaguer in the business.

    The Washington crowd has many more tricks up its sleeve than you seem to be aware of:

    > The Claude Raines option:

    “I’m shocked! Shocked! Targeting of tea partiers by the IRS? Round up the usual suspects.”

    > The Clinton/Stephanopolis bored to tears option”

    “It’s old news. We need to get back to the people’s business.”

    >  The far, far away option.

    “It only went on in the Cincinnatti location.”

    > The ‘who hired Craig Livingstone?’ option:

    “It was a ‘rogue’ operation.”

    > The Stephanopolis “God says it’s OK” option:

    “The President has said . . .”

    >  The Douglas Shulman equivocation option:

    “Not yes, but not no”

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