Does the Presumptive Presidential Candidate’s Statement Go Far Enough to Take Back Control of the Narrative?
4/4/19 – – A video posted yesterday on Twitter by Joe Biden in response to snowballing criticism of his personal style is getting a lot of attention – positive and negative. Let’s analyze its effectiveness as an example of high-profile crisis response. Yes, this is politics, but there are valuable lessons to be learned for companies and more mortal individuals facing reputational storms.
What was the purpose of the video?
A number of women (seven at this writing) have come forward to share their uncomfortable encounters with the back-slapping, glad-handing, shoulder-massaging, bear-hugging, nose-rubbing, space-invading former Vice President, who is expected to announce his candidacy for President of the United States in the next few weeks. A video compilation on YouTube of awkward public moments titled “Creepy Uncle Joe” has more than two million views. A written statement released over the weekend by Biden asserting, “not once – never – did I believe I acted inappropriately,” got very little traction.
The Biden team had to sense that they were losing control of the narrative, allowing his political opponents to define him. And it’s important to note that because he is the front runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination in most surveys of the party’s likely voters and the Democrat currently polling best against Donald Trump, there are forces on both sides of the isle who would like to see a Biden candidacy derailed before it leaves the station.
In Chapter 1 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“What a Crisis Is and Is Not”), we discuss the urgent objectives of crisis management:
- Honestly assess the challenges you’re facing
- Stop the bleeding
- Stay in control and character, maintaining the natural flow of business
- Respond with confidence in word and deed to maintain trust and resolve the crisis.
Any honest assessment of Biden’s situation would conclude that winning the Democratic nomination as a creepy old man who makes women uncomfortable in the #MeToo era is a difficult proposition. Something had to be done to stop the bleeding by at least neutralizing the testimony of “victims” appearing on cable news programs daily. And his campaign team had to feel the urgency of getting back in control, getting Joe back into character (artfully worded written statements are not his style) and getting back to the business of executing his campaign launch.
A video distributed via social media (rather than an interview with an unpredictable reporter) would allow Joe to talk from the heart with confidence and win back trust. So far, so good.
Was the video well executed?
The best way to describe the production quality of the video is “appropriate.” My guess is that a good smartphone camera (locked in place, not hand held) was used. That’s okay. Employing a sophisticated production crew with professional lighting and set dressing (the setting is Biden’s home) would detract from Biden’s authenticity and be discordant with the casual, fast-paced internet video genre.
Dressed in a solid blue suit and an open-collar white shirt, Biden looks like Biden – comfortable, friendly and in control. The low camera angle captures his strong hands and deliberate hand gestures, which he uses exceptionally well for emphasis. The sound quality is excellent. Unlike many online corporate videos, the speaker does not sound like he’s off-mic or in a barn.
Was the messaging on target?
Here’s where the video falls short. Missing from Biden’s otherwise heartfelt soliloquy is any apology or expression of regret. Zero. As I watched the video, I was so anticipating the words “I’m sorry for making anyone uncomfortable,” that I couldn’t focus on what else he was saying. In fact, I had to watch a second time for content once I knew no apology was coming.
In Chapter 12 (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”) we focus on the basic elements of effective crisis response: regret, reform, restitution, reaffirmation and recovery. While Biden promises reform (“I’ll be much more mindful”) and reaffirms his pure motives (“I’ve always tried to make a human connection – that’s my responsibility”), he concludes not with an apology, but by suggesting that he had indeed been out of step with the times (“The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it”). Unintentionally, that explanation does an excellent job of supporting the unflattering out-of-touch “creepy old man” characterization advanced by his opponents.
In response to the video, Lucy Flores, one of the women who have come forward with their stories, posted this on Twitter: “Given the work he has done on behalf of women, Vice President Biden should be aware of how important it is to take personal responsibility for inappropriate behavior, and yet he hasn’t apologized to the women he made uncomfortable.”
Why didn’t he just say he was sorry? Sometimes attorneys talk clients out of saying it because they interpret the phrase as a prima facie admission of guilt. In most cases, lawyers are much more comfortable with “I regret.” But there is no suggestion of criminal behavior here. Either expression would have been safe and appropriate for Biden’s video.
So, if you want to stop the bleeding with an effective crisis response statement – in video or written form – focus on sincerely expressing as many of the Five Rs as possible. In Joe Biden’s case, waffling on regret was a big mistake. He still has an enormous amount of political equity. But, the crisis continues to build. The demands for an apology will get more strident. The “Crazy Uncle Joe” narrative will live on.
Here’s the transcript from the video. See what you think:
Folks, in the coming month I expect to be talking to you about a whole lot of issues, and I’ll always be direct with you. But today I want to talk about gestures of support and encouragement that I’ve made to women and some men that have made them uncomfortable. And I’ve always tried, in my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection ― that’s my responsibility, I think. I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, “You can do this.” Whether they’re women, men, young, old, it’s the way I’ve always been, it’s the way I’ve tried to show I care about them and listen. And over the years, just knowing what I’ve been through, the things that I’ve faced, I’ve found that scores, if not hundreds of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort. Something, anything that may help them get through the tragedy they’re going through, so it’s just who I am. I’ve never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic. I’ve always thought about connecting with people. As I said, shaking hands, hands on the shoulder, a hug, encouragement. Now it’s all about taking selfies together, you know. Social norms have begun to change, they’re shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying, I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful ― that’s my responsibility. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.
UPDATE: 4/5/19 – – Taking media questions after a public appearance, Joe Biden doubled down on his reluctance to apologize for what is being described as “creepy” behavior saying, “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”