The Potential for a Second Chance

Posted by on June 13th, 2016

No one knows more about second chances than Hillary Clinton. She has risen from the ashes of her husband’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal, establishing herself as a major force in U.S. and global politics. I’d say it’s safe to assume, however, that she couldn’t imagine finding herself once again embroiled in such a high profile scandal – this time one of her own making.

As everyone with access to a TV and the Internet know, Mrs. Clinton is currently under criminal investigation by the FBI involving her handling of classified information on her personal server.  She has publicly acknowledged that it was a mistake to use a personal server for email but says she did so “out of convenience”. The public has not taken as kindly to that explanation as she may have hoped, and, as mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Despite her success in nailing down the Democratic presidential nomination, polls show many voters continue to doubt her truthfulness and integrity.  Her campaign manager has acknowledged the email matter has hurt her.”

The question I have asked as an investor relations professional is: if Mrs. Clinton was a CEO of a company – rather than the potential President of the United States – how would we have advised her to avoid some of the backlash this scandal has caused her public persona?

There are a couple of basic approaches to any such scandal:

  • First and foremost, if a mistake was made, it must be owned. People are a lot more forgiving when they feel you are being truthful with them.  Owning the situation and curating the story so that the facts are presented in a clear way promotes trust and understanding.  There is also a certain degree of power that comes with being the first to tell the story, rather than allowing media to speculate and draw their own conclusions.
    1. One of the things that has hurt Hilary in this email escapade, and was the major issue with Bill’s impeachment proceedings, was the perception of lying and dishonesty around the investigations that dragged out each scandal. People like a little humility from their leaders when it is appropriate.
  • We would advise our client to hold conversations with the research analysts who cover them. Tell them the facts as they happened so that when the analysts are making their judgments, they are telling the story “from the horse’s mouth,” avoiding a potential misconstrued story.
    1. This is the equivalent of doing a media interview blitz, where a politician is holding dozens of interviews with their story in order to get ahead of the speculation and Monday-quarterbacking.
  • We would immediately schedule a conference call and put together a script that adequately addresses the greater public’s concerns. Transparency and attention to detail would be especially critical in this process, as this is your chance to address the public, explain yourself and provide a benchmark of how you will learn from the experience and move forward.
    1. As much as people care about what happened, they also care about how it is going to be prevented from happening again. In Hilary’s case, she has tried to blame the State Department and their guidance. A positive result from this is that nobody in the future will be able to claim that they were unaware of the rules when it comes to the handling of federal government information and communications.

We will see over the next several months how Hillary Clinton chooses to shape her story going forward.  The American people have historically shown a soft spot for second chances, and if she chooses to speak directly to the issue instead of continuing to downplay it, she may be able to come out on top.