Managing Controversy in the Political Arena

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master's in Political Management Online

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” This old journalism saying, which has origins in the Watergate Scandal, still rings true when it comes to managing controversy in the political arena. Many political analysts would agree that it is how political figures respond in the wake of scandal that determines how lasting or damaging the situation will be. Whether avoiding an outright denial, an attempted cover up or poorly executed apology, politicians must be careful about how they manage controversial issues, especially during a tough campaign.

What not to do in the wake of controversy

Before diving into how political advisors should respond and act, it’s wise to learn from the mistakes of political contenders and appointees that came before their candidate. While most political races are not without their varying degrees of controversy, no situation is more iconic — or potentially damaging — as the political sex scandal.

With this in mind, no occurrence of this phenomenon has become more hotly debated or spoken of than former president Bill Clinton’s initial denial of the Monica Lewinsky incident. Aside from the incident itself, Clinton’s main misstep was denying his involvement until he was forced to do so after more evidence surfaced.

Following in Clinton’s footsteps is former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, whose name has now become synonymous with political sexting scandals. While Weiner first tried to deny an alleged instance where he posted an explicit photograph of himself to social media in 2011, he later admitted to the incident and resigned from his seat in Congress. Since then, yet Weiner was caught in multiple more sexting scandals up until Sept. 2016.

More recently, high-profile political scandals have involved issues of state security and international communications, as in the case of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn having to resign after misleading key government officials about his contact with Russian diplomats. Even in the case of the Hillary Clinton email controversy, many political analysts would argue that her lack of transparency surrounding the issue drove away many potential voters during the 2016 presidential election.

From each of these situations, political advisors can learn how vitally important honesty is to any successful political campaign. Instead of encouraging candidates to save face and stay away from difficult facts or scenarios, campaign managers should learn from these political errors and engage the controversy, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist. This is essential, whether the scandal itself is true or not.

Female politician speaking

What to do in the wake of controversy

After first exploring what not to do by learning from the mistakes of past political figures, it’s critical for every political team to develop a preemptive plan of attack should any tough facts, associations or situations emerge during the race. Even if a candidate doesn’t have past or current controversies, they could encounter rumors, negative propaganda or even outright lies during the course of their campaign.

With the widespread use of social networking platforms and the role of the media in politics, handling scandal is no longer as easy as holding a press conference and moving on. Now, political analysts, voters and dissenters can dissect every word or action of political candidates, making it more important than ever for political managers to leverage crisis management techniques and a comprehensive image resolution strategy.

American flag flying in front of the capitol building

Incorporate crisis management techniques

Whether candidates are tied up in a high-profile cover-up or make an accidental phrasing blunder, the same crisis management techniques can apply. The basic framework of any crisis management plan involves preparedness before a problem, fast response to limit damages and follow up to control the situation. To highlight what political advisors should do to manage controversy in their political campaign, here is advice for before, during and after a scandal:

Before: Be proactive

Prior to any race getting off the ground, political advisors must perform a complete risk assessment of their candidate. This process should identify and analyze any major threats, hazards and potential vulnerabilities. This may include past political or personal ties to lobbyist groups, organizations or individuals that may come out later during a tough and contentious race. While there may not be as much cause for concern about controversy in local, lower-profile races, this is a critical first step for any state or nationwide campaign.

Once political teams complete their risk assessment, they must develop an early warning system based on the detection of these threats. What this means is that political campaigns must be able to activate their pre-defined or contingency plans based off of certain information being leaked to the press or public. Even if the situation or issue itself is not controversial, certain news outlets or running mates may skew the facts to get ahead.

Depending on the available resources, political teams should train their staff on emergency response and stockpile equipment and supplies to support a contingency plan. After all, if a team is not prepared during a tight political race, all it takes is for a competitor to release one piece of controversial information about a candidate to tank the platform’s momentum or entire campaign.

During: Act quickly

Immediate action is key to getting ahead of any controversy. Every member of a political team must be involved in detecting any hint of a crisis through various means. Whether this involves volunteers monitoring networks and social media channels or public relations officials working with the media and private sector, acting quickly is important to maintaining control of any difficult situation.

Initial response efforts to a controversy breaking must be coordinated, heavily monitored and easily adaptable as the story develops or unfolds. With the rise of social media and high-profile blogs, there will be plenty of opinions and different directions the crisis could take. This is why it is essential for crisis management teams to be agile and act quickly at any hint of trouble. Handling the scandal should be an all-hands-on-deck kind of operation, with every team member doing what they can to lessen the fallback from the negative statements, event or information.

Depending on the severity of the situation, the candidate could give a heartfelt press conference or choose to address the problem over social media. Behind the scenes, the political team will engage with the media and voters to not only respond to the controversy, but gauge how the general public feels about the issue. Crisis management in the heat of the moment is all about acting swiftly and smartly, yet being willing to change tactics mid-move if need be.

After: Develop a comprehensive image resolution strategy

Following a scandal, it’s essential for any political campaign to have and launch an exhaustive image resolution strategy. Using William Benoit’s “Theory of Image Restoration,” political managers may consider following some of Benoit’s five-tiered strategy, which includes: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action and mortification.

For the first step, outright denial of controversy rarely proves to be effective, as in the case of the previously mentioned political sex scandals. As society thrives on information and can easily access an endless supply of it online, denial may not be a highly recommended image resolution strategy — unless the controversy is the result of slanderous attempts to sully certain candidates’ name and image. If this is the case, political advisors should shift the blame to the accuser, highlighting why these statements, involvement, etc. are false. This act of openness may win over certain voters who value honesty and integrity.

Skipping the second step, political managers should zero in on the next two: reducing offensiveness and corrective action. Candidates who want to overcome their controversy should focus on minimizing negative feelings associated with the scandal and make an effort to change or remove the current problem from the public’s mind. To accomplish this, campaigns may approach them from a variety of angles.

For smaller scandals, they may choose to reframe the incident in a more positive light or acknowledge their shortcomings and commit to doing better in the future. In the case of more controversial problems, political teams may also get their candidates involved in charities and events with prominent people or groups who could support them in rebuilding their image.

The final step, mortification, should be integrated into multiple steps of the image resolution process. Voters elect political figures they can trust. Political managers should make sure that even if their candidates encounter controversial situations, they focus on apologizing and dedicating the rest of their race to being an honest political option.

Political management is a fast-paced field that is perfect for any individual who loves engaging with the political arena and working with passionate individuals. From minimizing political scandals to running a successful campaign, there are plenty of exciting moments along the way. For more details about how an online program can support individuals in the political sector and want to know how to handle political controversy during a tough campaign, visit George Washington University online.

Electoral Integrity
Clinton’s email is a conversation starter for republicans in tight races
Democrats see FBI controversy hurting chances in U.S. Congress races
Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-Liners
Image Restoration in Political Sex Scandals
Image Repair of Military Healthcare