A step-by-step guide to surviving political scandals

by Bill Ralston / 12 September, 2017
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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.

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