Election campaigns occasionally have memorable turning points – the Stanfield fumble, the Mulroney “You had an option, sir” knock out debate punch are two Canadian examples that are thought to have been instrumental in determining election outcomes. In the 2016 U.S. election, candidate Donald Trump faced numerous inflection points which should have ended his race for the presidency, but none did. It is too early to tell whether Justin Trudeau’s blackface images will be a curve or a right-angle turn in the 2019 campaign. Regardless of outcome, what these moments share are lessons in why and how campaigns should be prepared for crises.
Five things political campaigns (and other organizations) should do to mitigate a campaign crisis:
- Anticipate and prepare. We know that people are more likely to recall how an incident is managed than the event itself, so this is essential. Taking the time to think about what puts the campaign or the candidate at risk and what you’ll do if it happens is time well spent. The Prime Minister handicapped his campaign team’s ability to manage the crisis by not revealing the existence of the images to them. They apparently didn’t have the opportunity to develop a responsive game plan or consider whether pre-emptive release of the material would be preferable. The wonder really is that these images, one of which appeared in a school yearbook, did not come out years earlier during Mr. Trudeau’s run for the leadership of the Liberal Party or during the 2015 campaign. Hoping that lucky streak would continue is not a risk mitigation strategy, it is the antithesis of one.
- Identify the crisis team. It is equally important to know who’s not among the decision makers as who is. Although the team should add “subject matter experts” as they judge appropriate, the core team should be small, used to working together and disciplined. This means screening out all the other voices who feel their advice should be heard and heeded by a leader who, in a moment of high stress, is vulnerable to the wisdom of the last friend they talked to.
- Act quickly, take responsibility (and apologize). The reality of responding to an unexpected incident is that time is not on your side. The campaign is in reactive mode from the outset and social media will be responding before you can tweet a comment, post on Facebook and Instagram, release a statement, or organize a media conference. So, speed is of the essence, along with assuming responsibility for your actions without equivocation and apologizing without reservation. Although depending on the nature of the crisis, hearing your lawyers out when it comes to apologizing is generally a good idea.
- Pivot to your narrative. In a personal crisis, like the one facing Mr. Trudeau, you do not have the luxury of deciding when it’s over. Earlier last week, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer replied to continued questions about his own behaviour by saying he’s dealt with that and is moving on. The reality is that the people – and the media – will make that determination, but it doesn’t mean that the campaign shouldn’t make every effort to get back on its narrative and game plan as soon and as much as circumstances permit. It’s a judgement call, but nothing good comes from being thrown off course for a moment longer than necessary.
- Learn from mistakes. There’s a great quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, that “a good crisis should never go to waste.” You don’t need to go through a crisis to learn from it. In fact, it is far, far preferable to learn from others and avoid the experience altogether. See #1-4 above.