A Q&A with those in the know
Crisis management is an art — it’s taught to budding CEOs and public relations students at business schools, studied and dissected by campaign managers and consultants, and acted out daily by politicians and corporate managers throughout the country.
But what are the rules? How does it all work? And how is it playing out in San Diego with Mayor Filner, who is facing a slew of sexual harassment allegations, possible lawsuits, calls for his resignation, and a recall movement.
To find out, inewsource spoke with those in the know: Jason Roe, the top strategist for Filner’s opponent in the mayoral runoff election, and Steve Callander, a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
(We invited Tom Shepard, Filner’s strategist during his fall campaign last year, to round out the conversation — but he didn’t respond. We had hoped to get additional insight eight months after the Shepard-Roe dynamic we captured in “Darth Vader meets the Worst Person in the World.”)
What follows are excerpts of interviews with Roe and Callander, edited for length.
What is the first thing you do during a crisis of this magnitude?
CALLANDER: “The unfortunate truth about politics is the institutional structure means that the best thing to do is to just not resign, and take that as your starting point… [Next] you need to gather the information you need as quickly as possible.
“So with this kind of situation with the mayor, you’d want to be having a frank discussion with him about what exactly he has done, and what other information will come to light in the coming days. There’s a balance you’re trying to pull off, which is: the quicker you can respond, the more opportunity you have to shape perceptions and shape the narrative. But the danger of talking too quickly is that you’ll say things that do create more news or say things that are wrong or factually incorrect. So it’s a balance of trying to talk as soon as possible but make sure you get it right.”
ROE: “The first rule is shut up. When you’re in a crisis situation, the first thing you want to do is stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, what we’ve seen is new bleeding start when old wounds haven’t cauterized yet. So I think that’s created an avalanche that’s led to where we are right now.”
How do you stop the bleeding?
ROE: “I think you need a symbolic show that tells the people you represent, “I understand, I get it, and I’m doing something about it.” I think [Filner] made an attempt to try to satisfy some of the people calling for his resignation… The problem is — it just really wasn’t much that he offered in that recognition. Just saying that you know that you’re causing a problem, saying that you’re sorry, and then going to do mandated sexual harassment training that’s already part of your job description isn’t really doing a whole lot to make amends for what happened.
“I think it would have been smart for him to reach out to the women in the city council chambers, meet with them privately and express his contrition for what happened…. Do some symbolic and substantive outreach to women’s groups to show you recognize the problem and want to address it.
“Having said that — I don’t know that that would be enough to save his ability to govern the city or remain as mayor.”
CALLANDER: “Ideally, you’d want to change the topic and have something else to talk about. But you can’t look like you’re changing the topic because then it looks like you’re dodging the issue… Wait it out and let the public’s final memory of how they file this away to be that somehow it was just regular politics and it doesn’t reflect upon your character. The public does remember these rough perceptions so you’re just trying to shape how they’re going to file this away.”
This isn’t the first time a politician has experienced a scandal of a sexual nature… can you talk about that?
ROE: Governor Mark Sanford was elected to Congress just two months ago. Eliot Spitzer is running for control of New York City. You’ve got Anthony Weiner running for mayor and leading in the polls. So we’ve seen people that have been involved in some form of sexual scandal survive it, but everybody in those situations was a consenting adult of one kind or another … That’s an important dynamic — this is not wanted, this is not mutually-consenting adults. It’s a person in a position of power taking advantage of that power with subordinates and people that frankly he would have some political jurisdiction over, whether they work inside the mayor’s office or not.
How did those three (Sanford, Spitzer and Weiner) make it through?
ROE: All three of them left office prematurely. If what we’re seeing is any indication, Bob Filner will follow their example in that regard. But they went and reinvented themselves in some other way, and came back into public life. With Eliot Spitzer, he started writing and becoming a commentator on what was happening in the financial crisis because, as New York’s Attorney General, he had a lot of experience in dealing with Wall Street and regulating that entity. Anthony Weiner probably did what I think is the best thing, which is to disappear for a while. He went underground, he ran his run of late-show jokes and found that New Yorkers were pretty libertine about looking past what he did. There was no victim in his crime — unless your eyes could be a victim looking at the text that he sent. Eliot Spitzer was maybe the most tawdry of those scandals. But again, he solicited and paid for prostitutes. Those prostitutes were certainly willing, so again you could argue that it was a victimless crime in that no one was unwillingly participating in those actions.”
How does a claim of sexual harassment differ from other kinds of scandals — for example, a politician using a racial epithet?
CALLANDER: “One misspoken word makes it easier for the public to believe it was just a slip of the tongue, whereas sexual harassment carries an implication that it was deliberate and went on for a long time and is more of a reflection of character, which makes it more difficult to explain away. It would be like if it was revealed you were a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a long time. That one, you couldn’t explain that away with a symbolic gesture. How much of this is a slip or a mistake versus how much does it reveal your character?”
ROE: “Someone I advised very informally, a congressman in Colorado last year, made a statement where he injected the term “tar baby” into a political debate and there was a backlash. He sat down with black pastors and explained to them, “I didn’t mean it in the way that it was taken, I apologize,” and they accepted his apology and came out publicly with him and said, “this was not a racially motivated comment, it was a poor choice of words.” What people want to see is that you admit your mistake and that you’re doing something about the mistake.”
Let’s talk about the public. Are symbolic displays and apologies enough for people these days?
“It’s like when people say, ‘well Jeb Bush could never be elected president because of his brother.’ Well, I would argue that he’s got the infrastructure, the ability to raise money and the network nationally to get through a primary and then voters no longer have to decide how they feel about George W. Bush. They have to make a choice between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, or whoever it is. It’s no longer about George Bush, it’s now a choice between two people that you’re making your own values assessment on who you want to be your representative. That’s why you ride a lot of these things out because this is how people feel today. How they’re going to feel two weeks from now, two months from now, or two years from now, could be wildly different.”
CALLANDER: “While the public may forget details, they do file away a memory of your character that was revealed in that crisis. So you’re trying to shape how people remember that crisis. It’s a non-obvious starting point of how a politician should deal with this.”
The next sections are purely locally-focused, so Callander bowed out at this point.
What happens next? What about the possibility of a recall?
ROE: “I think there are a lot of people on the left that are really eager to see a recall take place if [Filner] doesn’t resign. Their problem is — they want the Republicans to do it and do their lifting for them, and I don’t think the Republicans are by any means interested in rushing into the breach here to be responsible for recalling a Democratic mayor.
“It’s a 60-or-so day process from start to finish, but there’s some bureaucracy at the beginning of it that complicates the ability to get in the field and circulate petitions. So as I understand it, you effectively have about 39 days to collect 101,600 signatures — valid signatures — which means you probably have to get about 130,000 because you’ll have duplicate signatures, bad signatures, all kinds of things… That’s 2,600 signatures per day. That’s an extraordinary number of signatures, and that’s just to get the valid ones. Certainly it’s possible, but it would probably cost $3 million to do.
“You’ve got to have a lot of willing parties that come together and say, ‘we have reached a critical mass where this is important enough that we need to be doing this.’ I think that there is a lot of sentiment for, ‘we’ve got a really bad situation and the only way to fix it is to get Bob Filner out of there,’ but I don’t see — in the logistics — a path to success that anybody is all that eager to enter into.”
What about Carl DeMaio?
ROE: He’s running for Congress. Certainly there are people out there that have said, ‘Carl you came so close eight months ago, give it another run.’ It’s too early to tell, I mean, is there a run? We don’t know that. The reality is Carl just posted one of the largest fundraising quarters of any politician running for Congress anywhere in the country. He’s pretty far down the road on this race for Congress and I think it would probably be difficult for him to move from that over to the mayor’s race.”
And Nathan Fletcher?
ROE: “The words that I hear — and I don’t have anything that I can confirm — is that he’s making calls to people around the city. That there is a lot of enthusiasm from the labor movement in support of him. Which is quite a conversion from just a year ago when he was a Republican. It’s going to be an interesting jujitsu but I think in a recall or special election situation, the coalitions are very different, the turnout models are very different, I think you could see a lot of candidates getting in this race.”
Is there anything you’re surprised that people, or the media, aren’t talking about with regard to Filner?
ROE: “I find it odd that no-one has really talked about the fact that all this guy is saying is, “I’m going to do what I’m supposed to be doing on every count” — be nice to people, take my sexual harassment training that I’m already mandated to take and say that I’m sorry for all the sexual harassment that I’ve done up to this point. It was paraphrased to me by one person — do you think that Bob Filner can change? Apparently his fiancee didn’t think so, and if she doesn’t, why should we think so? There’s nothing in his history that leads you to believe that he’s capable of adjusting to this.”
We'll let you know when big things happen.