In corporate reputation, crisis communications, insights, media relations, political communications

Former Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards at this trial in North Carolina. (Image credit: ABC News)

Politico, one of my favorite reads, ran a piece today in which public relations pros offer crisis communications advice to John Edwards in the wake of his campaign finance trial.  To be blunt, I was stunned at some of the advice offered. Here’s why.

Some of the advice seems to hinge on three assumptions:

* John Edwards doing more interviews is a good thing for him.

* Americans – wives, husbands, victims of infidelity, cancer survivors, or those who devoted their lives, money and careers to his campaigns – will forget a series of deep public and private betrayals if he just sheds a few tears on Oprah.

*Chasing the public’s approval is a healthy endeavor for Mr. Edwards right now.

These three assumptions are terribly misguided, and reflect poorly on those of us who try to provide serious public relations counsel to companies and individuals in crisis. If I were advising Mr. Edwards, I would start here:

  1. Attempting a PR campaign reeks of the same hubris and desire for public adoration that led to your downfall in the first place.
  2. You have every right  to seek redemption and I hope you earn it.  Just stop talking about it and do good.  The people who matter – family, friends, and beneficiaries of your work – will know what you’ve done.  Done right, that circle will grow over time.
  3. Even your detractors acknowledge your rare gifts as an attorney. Offer that gift to philanthropic organizations that need it. Most importantly, do so quietly. Don’t talk to reporters about it. Don’t issue a press release. Don’t do it because you want people to like to you again. Do it because you sincerely want to help those in need.
  4. If – years from now – your surrogates wish to talk to a journalist about your good works, so be it. But let time heal wounds first.
  5. Above all, just stop talking and do good.

Many public relations crises require disclosure — regular updates about how your client is resolving a security breach, environmental spill, shareholder action, or employee layoffs.  This is not one of those scenarios. Treating it like one suggests that – like a shareholder invested in a company – the nation needs you in the future.  I hope my fellow PR pros recognize that in some crises talk is cheap and the road to recovery is a long one paved through sincere works done out of the spotlight.

Edwards’ considerable charm, good looks and rhetorical skills helped him mislead the American public.  The more he relies on those same attributes to pursue the public’s sympathies, the more obvious it will be that he learned little from his fall from grace.