Lawyers aren’t the only ones whose livelihoods are helped along by public scandals. There are also crisis management firms, who trade on their ability to work the media and influence public perceptions. Richard Levick runs one such firm, and has been called in to finesse such P.R. nightmares as the church sex-abuse scandal and the e-coli spinach scare. He discusses the Foley fallout with Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you have a P.R. crisis, you need a crisis manager. Richard Levick is CEO of a crisis management firm that has been called in on such P.R. nightmares as the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and, most recently, spinach. Richard, welcome to the show.
RICHARD LEVICK: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're the president of a crisis management P.R. firm. If Mark Foley had called you a week ago, what advice would you have for him?
RICHARD LEVICK: I'm not so sure we'd take the call. [LAUGHTER] You know, the first thing you want to do when you sense a crisis is you want to run to it. And what you have here is someone who was aware of the situation for many years, a party who was aware of it for at least a year. You have to deal with the situation early. If you don't address it head on, what it does is it starts to rot all the way to the top.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think of the strategy that was taken by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and later Newt Gingrich followed his lead, saying, well, they knew about it, but since it was a gay thing, they didn't want to blow the whistle on him because they'd be accused of gay-bashing, and it's really the political correctness police that kept the situation going for so long?
RICHARD LEVICK: You know, I know this is radio and we're not allowed to have dead silences on air, but that's exactly how those concepts were greeted. They just didn't work. So what we saw already this week was there's a state representative in West Virginia, and already photos, inappropriate photos of him, naked with two other men in body paint. And, of course, he's a Democrat. So -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you expect?
RICHARD LEVICK: [LAUGHS] Well, I'm not going to answer that question. But what you can expect, from a media point of view, is that if you are the Republicans now, a smart strategy is to try and put a plague on both your houses. Make the Democrats look just as bad as the Republicans. The problem, from a media point of view, is that they have run as the party of family values. What you want to do – in all stories, there are three roles: villain, victim and vindicator. What you have going on at the Republican congressional level is trying to distract the story. And what Mark Foley is trying to do is he's trying to move himself from being the villain over to being a victim. And that's why he's come out and said, you know, one day it's an alcoholic. One day, well, it's the fact that I'm gay, and one day, that it's the church that made me do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We saw Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, who was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal, check into rehab for alcoholism. This is a confessional culture.
RICHARD LEVICK: Confessions may be good for the soul, but they're only sometimes good for the media. The proper strategy for Mark Foley would have been to apologize profusely to the victims, to the families, to the United States Congress, to America, and then to have exited stage right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about language? You mentioned the word "inappropriate." That's a word that the Republicans have really liked to use. Tony Snow, White House spokesman, said that, quote, "There have been other scandals, as you know, that have more than simply naughty emails." That's what he wanted to call it. If you succeed in getting the press to use the words you want, can you change how this story goes down?
RICHARD LEVICK: Without question. I mean, I think that it's always a battle of the words to change subjects dramatically. As important as words are, though, pictures are even more important. We're not readers, as a society. We're scanners. What we do is we look at pictures. We don't think. We feel. And people already see the picture here and they ultimately hear the words, but they are feeling about the act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the picture that they're seeing is of those emails - are you horny? – etcetera.
RICHARD LEVICK: And that is why, on all the television programs regarding Mark Foley, they actually write out the emails so you can see them on the screen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the coverage, though, seemed to move very quickly from Foley himself to a Republican cover-up and the potential impact on the election. Is it usual for the point of the story to change so quickly?
RICHARD LEVICK: You know, the gods of Washington demand a sacrifice, and Foley could have been sacrificed early on in the process. But because the Republican Congress did not get in front of the story, what you're finding is that there are more calls for a sacrifice. You know, every day, we receive three to five thousand messages. We're overwhelmed with information. Try to remember just three messages from yesterday. It's incredibly difficult to do. What Mark Foley has succeeded in doing is becoming front and center a story just a month prior to election. And in order for people to get onto the next story, we need to feel that it was addressed. And, just as I mentioned earlier - villain, victim and vindicator – we already know that he's the villain, but he's already out to pasture. He's not valuable enough as a sacrifice anymore, and that's why Speaker Hastert is at the center of the crosshairs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard, thank you very much.
RICHARD LEVICK: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Levick is author of Stop the Presses: The Litigation P.R. Desk Reference.