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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

Be Thorough

The basics of crisis management start with finding the facts with all deliberate speed. Legal, political and communication strategies need to be seamless, and they all depend on accurate facts. The leader needs to assign fact-finding in the organization to an independent, tough-minded person who will not be heavy-handed but who will be skeptical about what people say in round one (and two...and three).

The leader needs to remind everyone in the top echelon that "We will be judged from the moment we hear about the crisis." He or she must resist totally the temptation to be chief investigator because talking to witnesses creates a whole separate set of issues and problems.

While political leaders are always tempted to "get out front" of the story with strong denials (see Jesse Jackson, Jr.), partial truths, glaring omissions or statements that subsequently become misstatements are a political cancer that can metasticize in ugly ways. Plus, the facts gathered by the internal team may be contradicted by facts to which only the prosecutor (or the media) have access. Despite the drumbeat of deadlines and public pressure, accuracy is far more important than speed.

That may sound conservative, but it is the only sustainable approach for a media strategy. And if the facts are mixed and confused, it may be necessary to take the immediate political hit of by standing on general statements (like the "cooperating with the inquiry" or "engaged in no wrong-doing" bromides) and let the legal process work itself out.

Obviously, the pressures for an immediate media strategy are enormous for the President-elect. It appears that the Obama camp is confident that it knows the facts -- and has nothing to fear from the many lines of investigation which are now being followed. It better be right.

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  December 15, 2008; 11:47 AM ET
Category:  Politics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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