Rip or Drip?

By Dr. Pat Meirick May 24, 2017

Director of the OU Political Communication Center and Associate Professor of Communications

 

When it comes to taking off a Band-Aid, there are two types of people. Some painstakingly tease the bandage off millimeter by millimeter, follicle by follicle, over the course of an evening. Others simply rip the Band-Aid off all at once.

If we were to judge by how they handle crisis communication, we’d have to assume that politicians are still walking around with Band-Aids that date from their childhoods.

Political consultants and crisis PR practitioners almost universally say it is best for scandal-plagued politicians to come forward with a heartfelt apology and release all damaging information at once. Not only is it perceived to be less damaging if the information comes from you than if the news media uncovers it themselves, but getting it all out allows politicians to “move on” and “put it behind us.” The other main advantage of coming clean is that it avoids the appearance (or reality) of a cover-up, which often ends up being a worse offense than the one it was attempting to conceal.

However, many politicians are resistant to this advice. Some think they can ride it out and keep the truth from emerging. They try to stonewall the press, offer futile denials (“I did not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With that woman. Miss Lewinsky.”) from which they later have to backtrack, or make partial admissions accompanied by justifications and finger-pointing. This leads to a “drip, drip, drip” of damaging revelations as journalists slowly uncover and confirm the information concealed by politicians.

Such a strategy plays into the hands of political opponents, who prefer that scandals dribble out slowly. They may even temporarily withhold some damaging information about their opponent. When the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992 learned that “Bush/Quayle” signs were being printed in Brazil, Clinton campaign manager James Carville called CBS to offer them the story.  George Stephanopolous offered to find out who -- the Bush campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC), or a subcontractor -- paid for the signs. Carville stopped him, saying, “That’s tomorrow. ‘Cause see, who got the contract, what guys have lobby things with Brazil -- there’s no sense in this thing being a one-day story. I don’t believe we got to, I think we ought to just ease this thing out a little bit.”

From a game theory perspective, it makes sense to try to ride out a scandal only if 1) the offense itself is bad enough to end your career and 2) you really think you (and everyone else who knows it) will keep the secret. Condition No. 1 may not apply until the cover-up kicks in. Watergate began as a “third-rate burglary” and the Lewinsky affair began as consensual hanky-panky, neither in themselves high crimes. If Donald Trump colluded with Russia to tamper with the 2016 election, that would qualify as big enough.

But maintaining secrecy has been difficult in past presidential scandals, and it appears to be especially so for this administration. It is a massively multiplayer game of prisoners’ dilemma, and if just one person sings, you lose.