Ralph Northam and Lessons in Crisis Communications

If you live in Virginia, it’s unlikely that news of Governor Ralph Northam’s troubles have escaped you. A quick recap: a racist medical yearbook photo surfaced and he apologized for it, and then the next day said it wasn’t him in the photo, but that there was another time he did something racist. And then he almost moonwalked during a press conference.

It’s been a wild ride and it’s not over. Many people are calling for the Virginia governor’s resignation.

This is the kind of event that crisis communicators and reputation management professionals follow closely. It’s clear that the governor is not following good communications counsel from the content of his apology and especially his conduct in the press conference. His career won’t likely recover from this, but could it? What would he need to do to right the sinking ship?

As a crisis advisor, this kind of situation is so frustrating because the real answer of how to emerge from the crisis is to go back 35 years and don’t do the terrible thing that caused the crisis in the first place. The second impossible scenario is knowing the existence of the photo, confront it, address it and call it a teachable moment. Would it have ruined his career then? Maybe, but far less spectacularly than now. When we meet with public relations clients, one of the first, important questions is:

Is there anything we need to know about your past that may cause difficulty in the future ?

We need to know, even if it seems painful now, so we can give you the best advice going forward. When we find ourselves with a surprise from a client’s past, or an inescapable history we must help make right, it really doesn’t help to sweep things under the rug and hope no one takes a peek. Transparency, authenticity, and the hard work of demonstrating your commitment to change is the only way out of a damaged reputation.