Ralph Northam: an example of what not to do in PR

Let me preface this by saying a couple things.

First of all, the photo circulating of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is clearly racist, disgusting and absolutely unacceptable, regardless of the perpetrator’s public status.

Second, this isn’t going into whether or not I think Gov. Northam should resign. There are plenty of opinions regarding that floating around on the internet right now.

Third, this is just my opinion, and not a professional one at that.

And my opinion is that Northam’s handling of this crisis was potentially the worst PR job I’ve seen in recent politics. I mean, if the goal was to take some attention off the president for a day, they did a great job. But otherwise, not so much.

As Jake Tapper said, “this is crisis communications 101: what not to do.”

If my public relations courses at UNC have only taught me one thing, you pick a story and you stick with it. Floundering around and changing up your story makes you look not only dishonest, but also incompetent, and especially in Northam’s position, unable to lead an entire state.

By initially apologizing for “appearing as [he] did” in the photo, and then trying to retract his admission of guilt in a press conference a day later, Northam lost all hope of potentially salvaging this situation.

Speaking of that press conference, Northam’s behavior throughout the briefing was anything but appropriate and made it appear as though he didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation.

Laughing while speaking and nearly moonwalking during the press conference only made Northam seem insincere, and there’s no room for jokes when apologizing for racism.

So then, what should Northam/his team have done?

He could’ve denied it from the beginning. However, it’s very unlikely that he’s not the one in the photo, as the photo is on his own personal page. This might have saved his governorship, but it would’ve likely created a lot of doubt in his ability to serve and would’ve hurt his credibility.

So I think (and again, I’m not a professional) that he should have just admitted it. He clearly was okay with admitting that he had done racist things in the past (see: dressing up as Michael Jackson using blackface for a dance contest, which he won, because that’s important, apparently) so he should have come clean at the beginning.

It would have been difficult, but this situation could’ve been spun as a story of personal growth. If he took the blame initially and recognized that he was at fault, Northam may (key word: may) have been able to keep his governorship.

Even if he did take the blame and resign, he would have made a statement about the consequences of racism by acknowledging his past, which would be a better situation than the current one.

If Northam took any sort of responsibility and stuck to it, his reputation would definitely still be tarnished, but not nearly to the extent that it is now.


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