Time’s Up in Albany
By Lawrence J. Parnell, M.B.A
Two weeks ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he was resigning from the office amidst an impeachment inquiry into allegations that he sexually harassed 11 women.
As the curtain comes down on the Cuomo era in Albany, there’s a lot we can learn from the crisis management and leadership communications strategies used throughout this ordeal.
It’s clear that the usual tactics of deny/delay, blaming the accuser, shifting the focus by pointing out prior good deeds, and running out the clock or news cycle did not work.
Once an issue takes hold, and the public, media and online community engage, the process is relentless and predictable.
As William Benoit explains in his seminal Image Restoration Theory, the crisis spectrum moves through five stages: denial; evasion of responsibility; attempts to reduce the offensiveness of the act; and – ultimately – taking corrective action and accepting responsibility.
Sometimes people or organizations will skip the interim steps and apologize right away. This is rare, especially in the current litigious and polarized environment.
Cases of sexual harassment like this one inevitably end in a begrudging resignation or a conviction in the court of public opinion – sometimes both, like Cuomo’s apology that wasn’t quite an apology – “…I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.” – is a prime example of a begrudging apology.
We all know the names of the men at the center of similar cases – Weinstein, Epstein, Spitzer, Weiner and more. There’s one in particular that shares striking similarities to Gov. Cuomo currently.
Rudy Giuliani also had – and lost – power and influence. Both men were lauded as heroes for a time; Cuomo for his high-profile leadership during the early days of the pandemic and Giuliani as “America’s Mayor” following 9-11. Cuomo got a book deal and a Daytime Emmy; Rudy was named Time’s “Man of the Year” in 2001 and developed a lucrative career as a highly paid consultant.
Both men had it all and lost it. Power and winning became an obsession and it, coupled with the belief that the rules didn’t apply to them, clouded their judgment.
While allegations against Giuliani do not include sexual harassment, the principal’s responses to the crisis have been similar in both cases. Attacking your accusers, blaming the media, or claiming political motives by your opponents are just some of the tactics they shared. This did not work for Cuomo and likely won’t be effective for the former mayor either.
So what can we take away from this?
If faced with a similar situation, full transparency and admitting mistakes is the right route to take. As Dr. Benoit tells us, we’re likely to end up there anyway.
After accepting responsibility the following communications strategies and tactics may help.
- Conduct a thorough review of internal policy, workplace culture and practices to strengthen oversight.
- Make a meaningful effort to make amends – internally and externally. This can include a donation of time, money and expertise to a related cause to avoid similar situations in the future.
- Leaders should consider speaking out on related issues and offering moral and personal support to victims (yours and others in similar situations). This can go a long way to demonstrating remorse and rebuilding your reputation.
Realistically, most leaders will balk at these suggestions. If that’s the case, the default position is simple: avoid the ineffective responses and move straight to apologizing and accepting responsibility.
Lawrence J. Parnell, M.B.A., is an award-winning Public Relations professional and academic who is an Associate Professor and director of The George Washington University Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program.
He has served in this role for 12 years and has built the GW Master’s program into one of the best known and admired programs in the US. Professor Parnell also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Strategic Communications at The GW School of Business.
Prior to coming to GW, he had a successful 35-year career in the private and public sector. He has worked in government, corporate and agency settings and in national, state and local political campaigns. He was recognized as PR Professional of the Year (2003) by PR Week and was named to the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009. The GW Master’s program was named the “Best PR Education Program” for 2015 by PR Week.
He is a frequent author and speaker on communications strategy, crisis and issues management, leadership skills and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at industry conferences and universities around the world. He is quoted often on communications management and crisis communications in the national, business and trade media.
He is the co-author of a leading public relations textbook – Introduction to Public Relations from Sage Publishing. The text is now in its second edition and has been adopted by over 30 leading undergrad PR programs across the country. Parnell also contributed (as co-author) a chapter on CSR and Public Diplomacy in the book National Branding and Public Diplomacy (Peter Lang Publishing) published in Spring 2017.
He is active on Twitter at @gwprmasters and on Facebook and LinkedIn.