Will the tightly controlled announcement of the Gen. David Petraeus affair and resignation become an unstoppable PR crisis for the Obama administration?
It’s hard to say, because the political and media world is only now getting a grasp on the scope of the story.
However, Petraeus has followed the crisis PR textbook, according to several public relations professionals.
Unlike when elected officials resign in disgrace and seem to drag it on for weeks with denials and tearful press conferences—see: Anthony Wiener—the retired Army general issued a statement that identified the reason for his stepping down (an extramarital affair) and owned up to it.
“I’ve got to give him credit for exercising military precision and immediately stepping down when he made the affair public,” said Gil Rudawsky, a crisis PR counselor (and PR Daily
The affair with his biographer is an unfortunate turn—not to mention a family tragedy—for a public servant who may have had presidential aspirations, but the way in which he handled the resignation hit on key crisis PR points.
Whether that minimizes the fallout from the news is another story.
Dropping bad news on a Friday
During a relatively quiet afternoon on Friday—with the media and the public recovering from the long 2012 presidential election—Petraeus issued his resignation as director of the CIA. It began:
“Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as D/CIA. After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the president graciously accepted my resignation.”
As the world would soon learn, Petraeus—the architect of the military surge in Iraq—had carried on an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The FBI uncovered the affair after Broadwell sent a threatening email to a close friend of the Petraeus family.
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Rudawsky says the statement issued by Petraeus is well crafted and offers the right amount of facts and contrition.
“At least, he mitigated some of the fallout and finger-pointing, as details of the affair and subsequent investigation blow up in the media and political circles,” he said.
Plus, it dropped around 3 p.m. EST on Friday—a classic tactic of government officials and politicians, said Jackson Wightman, a former press aide to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (before he was prime minister).
“The theory is that Friday afternoons, even early evenings, are a great time to put out news that you’re trying to bury, because journalists are thinking about the weekend—they want to get the hell out of the newsroom,” explained Wightman, who is also a PR Daily
Audiences, too, have their minds on the weekend. Moreover, Saturday newspapers are notoriously short on available space, and newsroom staffs are busy filling three editions—the Saturday through Monday papers.
Although social media has blunted the effectiveness of the Friday afternoon disclosure, it remains a popular PR move by government officials.
Wightman, Rudawsky, and others interviewed by PR Daily
used the term “military-like” to describe Petraeus’s handling of the news.
“From a very operational point of view, the guy has done a pretty good job,” said Wightman. “He’s gone, and he’s actually gone. He’s not in front of reporters going off message. It’s very surgical. It’s very in keeping with Petraeus.”
Wightman even suggested that by releasing all of the details of his resignation—that is, not simply saying he’s stepping down for “personal matters”—Petraeus put crisis communications above protecting his family.
“Releasing the details kind of ends the story—it’s a proactive approach,” he said. “It could be construed as more hurtful to his family, but it’s definitely a way to manage the reporting around it.”
This crisis has only begun
Despite his high marks for releasing the bad news, others aren’t so sure Petraeus’s military-like precision is going to make this thing go away.
“The devil on this matter is going to be in the details, and we’re only just at the start of this crisis cycle,” said Hinda Mitchell, vice president at CMA, a national public relations agency based in Kansas City. “This is not just a simple extramarital affair. What began as a moral breach is now being characterized as a precursor to evidence of a possible national security breach.”
The timing of the incident raises more questions than it does answers, Mitchell says.
The White House claims it learned of the affair on Wednesday—one day after the general election. However, media accounts suggest the FBI was making noise about the affair for a good while before the administration learned of it.
Plus, Petraeus was scheduled to testify before congress about the Sept. 11, 2012, killing of U.S. officials in Libya, but his successor Acting CIA Director Michael Morell will do so instead. Members of Congress are pressing for Petraeus to testify despite his resignation.
"What you want in a crisis is a well-controlled, contained response,” Mitchell said. “Because new developments are being announced with increasing frequency, it’s hard for the communicators to get in front of the story, and it’s swiftly becoming a runaway train.”
There’s also the matter of another public official, or powerful executive, thinking his private affair wouldn’t go public. Even worse, the person at the center of this private dalliance is in charge of the nation’s clandestine operations.
Or as Rudawsky put it, “The head of a spy agency might have known better.”