A step-by-step guide to surviving political scandals

by Bill Ralston / 12 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Ralston

Photo/Getty Images

You need to confront the situation head-on, says Bill Ralston. If it’s going to come out, bring it out yourself.

Why do political scandals seem to break out only during election campaigns? Do politicians proclaim a truce for two years and 11 months, then suddenly declare open season on one another for just four weeks of bloodshed? Unless it’s an allegation of a prurient kind – which would be much more interesting than most New Zealand scandals – I tend to ignore such furores as being politically inspired, and I’m not going to play the perpetrators’ silly games.

These days, as well as writing this column, I occasionally occupy myself by using some hard-learnt lessons to provide reputational management and damage control advice to individuals and organisations that find themselves in a hole, up to the neck in effluent. The first thing they must do, to use an old adage, is stop digging. Do not thrash about, and when you’re neck-deep in it, it’s wise not to duck.

You need to confront the situation head-on. If it’s going to come out, bring it out yourself. Be completely honest publicly about the state of affairs. It’s called transparency. It demonstrates you’re being as honest as you can in a difficult situation. It also stops your opponents discovering more effluent that you’ve kept hidden and hurling it at you.

A drip feed of damaging information over a period of days or weeks is incredibly destabilising. In media terms, it means you progress from being “controversial” to “troubled”, then “embattled”, on the way to being “disgraced”.

A classic illustration of this was former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, who released only some of the relevant facts concerning her benefit fraud, then was eventually sunk by drips of information that became a torrent.

Having done a complete dump of all the relevant information, you need to assess whether there is any blame that needs to be dealt with. If you’re at fault, apologise. New Zealanders are very forgiving people. A mea culpa will greatly assist, and it will also go towards emphasising your honesty.

You then need to demonstrate you are taking some action to remedy your situation. Governments traditionally reach for some form of formal investigation that, with any luck, won’t report back on the finding for several weeks or months, thereby taking the heat out of the issue.

The action part of the equation is vital. I always remember the slogan of Wellington retailer LV Martin: “It’s the putting right that counts.” Putting the situation right counts for a lot when you’ve been exposed to a scandal. “I’ve paid the money back” is another useful “putting right” way to cauterise a wound, and Winston Peters used that line recently to some advantage.

The final stage of the process of extraction from scandal is usually applying some perspective to it of the “I’ve never done it before and it was only a tiny thing” kind. This can be tricky and it may sound a little like weasel words unless you get it right, but it is important. The media apply a microscope to a scandal and can magnify that molehill into a mountain.

If you do manage to limit the damage, there is a handy counterpunch you can make. Challenge the fact that the damaging information against you was somehow released to the media and demand to know who is accusing you and why are they doing it. With any luck, the story path will then fork into a hunt for the leaker and scrutiny will move to their motives.

So, Bill English, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, James Shaw and David Seymour, should another scandal explode that involves you, there’s some simple, free advice.

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


New Zealanders love a good ghost story
86094 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z History

New Zealanders love a good ghost story

by Redmer Yska

We New Zealanders are known for being down to earth and no-nonsense, but there's a surprising number of Kiwi stories with a supernatural element.

Read more
How to avoid burnout at work
86051 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

How to avoid burnout at work

by Marc Wilson

Taking positive steps at work will help keep weariness at bay.

Read more
A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog
86100 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog

by Sally Blundell

Just saying “oh, how adorable” is not all you need to do before taking on a new dog.

Read more
Tarawera eruption: What was the mysterious ghost canoe?
86076 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z History

Tarawera eruption: What was the mysterious ghost c…

by Dale Williams

For more than 130 years, lovers of ghost stories have enjoyed talking about one of our most enduring mysteries: the Phantom Canoe of Lake Tarawera.

Read more
How to get the health benefits of nuts without the cost
85733 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to get the health benefits of nuts without the…

by Jennifer Bowden

You need 30g of nuts a day to maximise their health benefits. Here's some tips on how to do it without putting a hole in your wallet.

Read more
Model car collector Winton Amies: 'I'm just a big kid collecting toys'
84783 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Model car collector Winton Amies: 'I'm just a big …

by Guy Frederick

When Amies moved to Naseby’s old butcher shop 22 years ago, he brought 1200 model cars with him; now he has more than 3000.

Read more
Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bulldogs
86110 2018-01-20 10:49:32Z Business

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bul…

by Sally Blundell

As a result of growing concern over the welfare of pugs, British and French bulldogs, Trade Me has announced they're banning the sale of these breeds.

Read more
Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding shame
86056 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Currently

Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding s…

by Sally Blundell

NZ has an unregulated puppy-breeding industry where unscrupulous operators can flourish, so why aren’t we following the lead of overseas governments?

Read more