Blagojevich, Schwarzenneger and the risks of all big stories

December 15, 2008

I try to see in situations like the Blagojevich scandal the impact for companies and agencies relating to crisis communication. What lessons can be learned? There are many obvious ones here like don’t be stupid, don’t be a criminal, don’t be so arrogant, clean up your language and your wife’s too, get a new haircut and all that. But there is a more subtle lesson and a more insidious danger and it is represented by this story in the LA Times about Gov. Schwarzenneger.

When a big story hits the mainstream media, every local or regional outlet or reporter is looking for the local angle. This is especially true of the story uncovers some sort of danger or risk for the public or a group. When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred and the issue became lack of notification to students, nearly every university or college president got contacted by their local media and had to answer the question: are you prepared to notify students about something going on on your campus. There was a frenzy of contracting with notification companies as university leadership discovered a vulnerability that now could potentially cost them their jobs. Tight budgets stretched and notification providers had a field day.

Look at this LA Times story in a little detail. Is it saying that the Governor is participating in Pay to Play politics? Well, no not exactly. But there is a pretty strong suggestion that what he is doing is somehow connected to the ugliness in Illinois. Look at this comment included in the story:

That’s the way the system works, and it troubles me,” said Derek Cressman, Western regional director for Common Cause, who worked with Schwarzenegger on the initiative and has written a book critical of his fundraising. “The governor, like every other elected official in our state, pays more attention to those people who support him than those who don’t. And those people who support him with big checks get noticed.”

Wow, every elected official in the state of California is tainted by this hint of Pay to Play. People who help keep these elected people in office with their money get more attention that those who don’t. I wonder if Mr. Cressman whose organization I believe is funded by donors, pays any more attention to the major donors to his organization than those who contribute nothing. Somehow he probably thinks that is appropriate for him because, after all, his is a righteous cause, and all politicians care about is staying in office.

Frankly, this article is pretty disgusting in my mind. It makes no accusations other than by subtle inuendo. But in the context of the on-going hypercoverage around Blagojevich, raising any question about the propriety of campaign contributions and how those are secured is going to come across as an attempt to spread the scandal. What is at issue here, is our money-fed political system–good questions to raise, no doubt. But to try to pull others in on the flimsy basis such as presented here is a good indication to me of what is wrong with serious journalism today.

The lesson for public affairs managers and crisis communicators is clear–a megastory will create a feeding frenzy at the local level. And an effort will be made, such as seen here, to paint all with a big broad brush. What reporter wouldn’t want such a juicy scandal spread to his or her backyard? And few apparently can resist the temptation to do what they can to spread it.

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3 Responses to “Blagojevich, Schwarzenneger and the risks of all big stories”

  1. drgilpin Says:

    This is an excellent point, and one I try to explain to my students: the crisis doesn’t have to originate with your organization for it to potentially affect your reputation. Similarly, some crises never die, but come back periodically (on anniversaries, or when analogous crises happen and journalists dig through their archival files for sidebar material), so the alleged “post-crisis period” that textbooks refer to can stretch out forever.

  2. coffee fiend Says:

    Blagojevich has been so successful at making himself and his office look ridiculous that about a million people are now able to remember and maybe even spell his crazy name — that’s sort of like an accomplishment, right?

  3. Gerald Says:

    Certainly is an “accomplishment” if you subscribe to the old old theory about no publicity is bad publicity if they spell your name right. Problem is, celebrity itself is not the whole name of the game in our society. Reputation matters. And Mr. Blag’s is shot, despite people learning how to spell (and speak) his name.


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