Girlfriends, Generals and Gmail

The David Petraeus saga, at a minimum, should serve as a reminder that our lives are open books, even when we run the clandestine service of the most powerful nation on Earth. Petraeus' predicament might not tell us much about effective crisis management, but the generals and their girlfriends do serve up five important reminders.

1) Cute don't cut it when it comes to delivering bad news.

Attempts to cleverly time the release of unsavory information rarely work, especially with the reality of digital and social media.

Fire any communications consultant who says things like "let's hold off on announcing the layoffs another few weeks so we can do it the Wednesday before Thanksgiving." It's bad advice -- malpractice as far as I am concerned.

Henry Kissinger's advice is even more correct today: "anything that will be revealed eventually should be revealed immediately."

Granted "immediately" is relative here. I am not suggesting that one rush to the news media and blurt out information without vetting messages and developing a plan. But it should be done quickly, so as to avoid an unfortunate outcome: the dreaded leak.

Leaks happen. If the CIA and the FBI leak, there's a pretty good chance your organization will as well. And you are playing defense the second your secret is out. Most never reclaim control of the message. The only opportunity one has to show leadership is when you are the one delivering your own bad news first.

Even the fortunate ones, who manage to time the release of bad news as planned, often suffer other unforeseen consequences. Stakeholders are typically not amused by these too-clever-by-half timed announcements; and I know more than a few journalists who would go out of their way to make sure the ugly truth is also told in a busy news cycle -- in the public interest of course.

2) Don't overlook one issue while defending another

When friends of General John Allen tried to explain away the thousands of email exchanges between Allen and Tampa Bay socialite Jill Kelley, they overlooked an important issue: Allen was sending thousands of emails to someone not involved in the fight. Whether those messages were inappropriate or not, is in many ways irrelevant.

It's not uncommon during the intensity of a crisis, to suffer sudden-onset-myopia -- nearsightedness. The general's handlers were so focused on beating back any suggestion that Allen's relationship with Kelley was similar to that of Petraeus and Patricia Broadwell that they missed an important issue that needed to be addressed: his focus on the war, or lack thereof.

A lot of unknowns are still out there in terms of facts, but if Kelley and the commander leading our forces in Afghanistan truly corresponded thousands of times by email, many won't care if the salutation included the word "sweetie" or "xoxo", what they will question is whether he was too distracted to properly oversee an operation where the lives of Americans are at risk.

3) Half-truths and embellishment will bite you

Tweaking a detail about your past, exaggerating an accomplishment, or omitting a few important facts that leave people with the wrong impression, will come back to haunt at some point. In the case of Jill Kelley and her pseudo-diplomatic rights, it didn't take long.

From a CEO who inflates his educational credentials to a plant manager who misinforms the local paper about a recent chemical mishap, the truth is usually a few clicks away on a computer or smart phone. In the hands of a vendor owed money, or an angry employee recently let go, those facts can be devastating.

I didn't mention out-and-out lying yet, but in a way I did. Half-truths and embellishments are lies and can hurt just the same, ask Jill Kelley. It is true that she was bestowed the title of honorary consul by South Korea, but it was the way she twisted the almost meaningless title into something official that contributed to her loss of credibility, leaving many with the impression that she's dishonest.

Perhaps people got away with this kind of thing more when research involved going to a library or government office and combing through microfiche. But no longer is this the case. I'm working on a situation now involving a journalist who failed to disclose to his editors his friendship with someone involved in a story he is writing; it only took a few minutes to uncover and document the appearance of conflict-of-interest.

I tell clients that bad news is bad news, no matter how you slice it, so put away the knife. If a "rotating quacksalver" (my term for spin doctors) suggests using less precise numbers (e.g. hundreds rather than thousands), tell him to spin his way out of your office. My advice is to be conservative, err on the side of saying that more people are at risk of being impacted. I fully understand that legal and financial implications play a role, but in almost every scenario the precise, conservative approach is the right course when it comes to facts.

4) Delete(?), there's no such thing

Moving potentially embarrassing emails from your inbox to your trashcan doesn't really get rid of them. Of all the people in the world, the head of the CIA would be the one person I would think understood this.

Until you get the hang of it, try putting a note on top of your computer with the following message: WARNING, the email you're sending is part of your permanent record. Especially with clients, I assume that everything I send will be eventually discovered in litigation; if you make the same assumption you will find that you send fewer emails and more often pick up that old-fashioned paperweight on your desk -- the telephone -- and give the other party a ring.

5) You have to tell your story -- nobody else will

In my first encounter with a crisis client I regularly hear "we don't understand why people aren't more empathetic to our side of the story." My retort "they might be once you tell them what it is."

The first person I need to win over in crisis work is the organization's lead counsel -- the person who often irritatingly mumbles "no comment" to any mention of the media or journalists. The lawyer's task is to mitigate liability and to "win the case, whereas my job is to save the company, its reputation and its brand. Arthur Andersen's Enron problem is a great example: by the time the accounting firm was vindicated in court their partnership was effectively out of business.

None of the individuals in the Petraeus affair have really come forward with his or her story, and at this point, I am not sure what good it would do without knowing all of the facts. It appears to me that the one person who could have benefitted the most from a strong quick response to the story is General Allen.

If his relationship with Kelley was one where he was merely responding politely to an overzealous social climber, he should have said so early and often (I understand that his superiors might have instructed him otherwise). Allen is now however lumped in with the Petraeus, Broadwell and Kelley, which isn't the best of company at this point. Each case is different and there are certainly times where waiting-it-out is the proper course, but those times are few are far between.

The best remedy of course is to not find yourself in these situations in the first place. But, in the event you get yourself into a predicament, keep these five lessons in mind and give me a call (shameless).