Christopher Lehane joins The Cycle in today’s guest spot to discuss his book Master of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control. Lehane made his name during the Clinton White House years when he helped manage crises from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky, earning him the name of “Master of Disaster”.
We’ve all been there — found ourselves in a crisis situation at one level or another. We’ve seen it in political campaigns, corporate blunders and PR nightmares. So what should you do? Christopher Lehane’s book provides some suggestions and outlines his “Ten Commandments of Damage Control” to help during times of crisis.
Be sure to tune in at 3:30 p.m. for the full conversation and check out an excerpt from his book below.
Not a Question of If, but When
I n t h e Informat i o n Ag e , t h e r e a r e two k i nds o f p e o p l e , two k i nds o f i n s t i t u t i o n s ,
two kinds of organizations: those who have been hit with a crisis and those
who haven’t been around very long.
Whether you are a multinational corporation such as BP responding to oil
gushing into the Gulf of Mexico or the neighborhood restaurant dealing with
a bad Yelp review, confronting a crisis is not a question of if but of when. And
of those who have looked a great crisis squarely in the eye, there are similarly
two kinds of people, two kinds of institutions, two kinds of organizations:
Those who were able to be masters of their disasters, and those who failed.
The landscape is dotted with a few winners but crowded with many losers
who simply did not have what it took to survive the crisis.
For every Bill Clinton—who left office with the highest presidential job
approval rating in history despite having been impeached—there are disgraced
former politicians like Gary Hart and John Edwards.
For every Goldman Sachs—which, despite being widely portrayed in the
wake of the 2008 financial meltdown as a pack of real-life Gordon Gekkos savagely
trouncing all in their path in the service of the bottom line, has continued
to have great success—there are companies like Lehman Brothers, Enron,
and Arthur Andersen, consigned to the ash heap of Wall Street.
For every franchise athlete like Yankee’s star Alex Rodriguez—who in
2009 went from being the spring training goat of ridicule over revelations
about his use of performance-enhancing drugs to being the 2009 World Series
hero—there are disgraced former superstars like Barry Bonds and Mark
4 Masters of Disaster
These same battles play out every day not just in The New York Times and
The Wall Street Journal, but also in the Peoria Journal Star and Palo Alto Online.
The names may not be known to all, but the problems are just as serious to
those in the vortex, such as:
• The local bed and breakfast that suddenly discovers it has been
reported to BedBugRegistry.com;
• Your colleague who inadvertently left his resume in the printer and
is being called in by his boss to address whether he is applying for
• A neighborhood fast-food franchise that is suddenly dealing with a
so-called foreign particle in its hamburgers that may or may not have
been planted there by a spiteful customer or a disgruntled employee;
• A principal at a private school who is trying to explain the dip in the
latest test scores to a group of angry parents;
• A guy in the adjoining cubicle who inadvertently hits “reply all” when
sending his best friend a scathing criticism of their boss.
All of these examples are, in fact, real-life cases—and versions of them
happen every day. And while these crises may not be leading national news
reports, when they happen to you or your organization, it’s personal, it’s profound,
and it will have an enormous impact on you, your family, and your
It’s like what Ronald Reagan said about the economy when running
against Jimmy Carter—when your neighbor’s out of work, it is a recession;
when you’re out of work, it is a depression.
Similarly, when your neighbor faces a crisis, it is someone else’s scandal;
when you face a crisis, it is a disaster that you must master.
We are often asked how to identify a crisis. A crisis can manifest itself in a
seemingly infinite number of ways: It could be a legal problem, such as when
a Fortune 500 corporation is sideswiped by an accounting scandal; it could
be an economic challenge, such as when a restaurant is losing market share to
a competitor because of poor Yelp reviews; it could be a personal issue, such
as when a spouse is caught cheating on their partner; or it could be organizational
in nature, such as when a high school principal removes a teacher for inappropriate
conduct. In whatever for the crisis appears, the most accurate way
for you to know whether it is, in fact, a crisis is to apply one very simple test:
No t a Q u e s t i o n o f I f, b u t W h e n 5
Is there something that is putting you or your organization’s trust at risk with
those very audiences—be they shareholders, consumers, your spouse, or your
superior—whose trust you must maintain to be able to survive and thrive?
Simply put, crisis is everywhere and impacts everyone, whether you are big
or small, established or less established, powerful or not so powerful. Crisis is a
constant state of nature in our Information Age. And in the modern spin cycle,
whether you are a business protecting a brand, a public figure guarding your
image, or that guy in the cubicle defending your reputation, if you do not fight
back—even after a short, nasty, or brutish experience—you will no longer have
your brand, your image, or your reputation.
Successfully fighting back—whether it is fending off a national story or
your neighborhood blogger—involves the application of a set of basic principles
of crisis survival coupled with the execution of field-tested tactics.
This is the survival of the fittest.
This is the black art of damage control.
And this is what we do.
For more than twenty years, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani have manned
the frontlines of scandal patrol. In the 1990s, the two of us helped lead a team
of lawyers who were responsible for representing President Bill Clinton, First
Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the White House on various scandals related
to Ken Starr’s investigation of the president. During that time we became
publicly known as the “Masters of Disaster.” Since leaving the White House
in 2000, our crisis communications firm, Fabiani & Lehane, has represented
global Fortune 500 companies, high-profile CEOs, elected officials, celebrities,
Our partner in this, Bill Guttentag, a lecturer at the Stanford University
Graduate School of Business, comes from the journalism side of the damage
control house. Bill is a filmmaker who has made films and television programs
for ABC News, HBO, NBC, CBS, PBS, and others. He has worked with multiple
national network news anchors and has won two Oscars, three Emmys,
a Peabody Award, and other awards. And he’s spent enough time inside the
networks and other media to know what works in deflecting a crisis and what
throws gas on the fire.
When we began to write this book in June 2011, the United States experienced
a month that saw record-high temperatures, matched only by what
seemed like a record-high number of breaking scandals—from Congressman
Anthony Weiner’s salacious tweets to teenagers and a porn star and revelations