Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anthony Weiner Twitter Scandal: A Better Approach?

Background of Crisis

US Congressman Anthony Weiner is currently in crisis mode as he tries to manage the fall-out from the scandal of him sending a 21-year old a link to a photograph of his erection under his boxer briefs via his Twitter account. After initial attempts to cover-up the scandal proved futile by saying his account was “hacked”, Weiner eventually initiated a press conference on 6 June 11 (10 days after the scandal broke) where he admitted that the tweeted photo was not the work of a hacker but his own. Weiner then apologized to his family and his constituents, and admitted to having had exchanged "messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years.”

Let us analyse Weiner's management of this crisis from two perspectives – the Crisis Response Strategy and the Communications Plan.

Crisis Response Strategy

In terms of a Crisis Response Strategy (CRS), Weiner has adopted the “accept responsibility” strategy with the Theme of “human fallability”.  Weiner's CRS was however incomplete as it failed to provide information to help stakeholders deal with their “anger”. This is because while an admission of a mistake and the issue of an apology is important, stakeholders' sense of justice demand that Weiner “pay” for his actions and demonstrate contrition in proportion to the severity of his misdeed. Weiner, in my opinion, should have followed-up his apology with either voluntarily undertaking to perform community service as penance, or enrolling himself for “treatment”.  By holding himself accountable for his actions, it is likely to shift stakeholder anger to one of neutrality or sympathy.

Communications Plan

From the communications plan perspective, while Weiner made several mistakes, to his credit he also did somethings right. As mentioned in my research, in the era of social media, an effective crisis communications plan comprises 5 essential elements – open, timely, 100% truthful, broadly communicated and Internet present.

In this instance, Weiner's communication plan comprised 3 of the 5 elements i.e. he was 100% truthful and communicated his response broadly and on the Internet via a press conference. Weiner's decision to be “100% truthful” by readily admitting his other indiscretion is also the correct move. This is because it is inevitable that the other women would come forward and not being upfront would only add fuel to the fire.

Unfortunately, Weiner failed in being open and timely in addressing the scandal. Being open and timely is important as these 2 elements will not only frame the crisis to his advantage (i.e. human fallibility vs cover-up), but also demonstrate Weiner's willingness to hold himself accountable. While there are no hard and fast rules, a response time of 48 hours (2 news print cycles) can be used as a rough guide.

Conclusion

To me, the key lessons for Public Relations Professionals are these:

a. The Crisis Communication Plan must work in tandem with the Crisis Response Strategy. If the decision is to adopt an “accept responsibility” strategy, then a timely and open plan will reinforce the strategy and enhance the probability of its success.

b. Contrition is an important part of the “accept responsibility” strategy. Without it, stakeholders are less likely to accept the apology. Being accountable means “punishing” yourself when you have failed to live up to expectations.

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