Joe Biden and the Sad State of Democrats’ Crisis Communications

Joe Biden and the Sad State of Democrats’ Crisis Communications


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Tony Panaccio
Co-Founder of Bold Blue Campaigns
Award-Winning Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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The national media seems consumed with questions about whether former vice president Joe Biden is too “handsy” to be a viable presidential candidate in the age of #MeToo, but Democrats should be equally as concerned about one reality that they don’t seem to recognize — they have absolutely no earthly clue how to manage crisis communications in today’s political climate.

Of course, many argue that the primary difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to these issues is that Democrats seem stymied by questions of character with regard to racism, misogyny and consent culture while Republicans easily excuse white supremacy and sexual assault because they cling to some imaginary moral high ground regarding abortion. As if the GOP’s constant fascination with what we all have in our pants and what we do with it is like they’re a bunch of teenagers who never got over their first case of the high school hornies.

That’s a deeper discussion for another time, because we can’t get to that until we unravel why Democrats always seem so bumfuzzled when it comes to addressing their own questions of character in the court of public opinion. The real problem is the willful ignorance and arrogance of campaign strategists who simply refuse to adhere to the best practices of Crisis Communication 101.

Which brings us to Biden. It’s not like no one knew of his reputation for being a little huggy with women, as the GOP has been portraying him as the creepy uncle who keeps candy in his pockets for the better part of a decade. Moreover, the Democratic party has been a key supporter of the #MeToo movement, so how is it that no one in Biden’s camp came up with any kind of strategy to preempt those concerns with a proactive communications plan? So, for them, we offer a primer of the basic principles we must apply to Democratic candidacies.

  • Preemptive Diffusion — When you know there is an issue, don’t wait for the opposition to point it out. That means playing defense, and in politics, that never works. Get out in front of it and control the narrative as much as possible. That’s a principle Madison Paige, CEO of Bold Blue Campaigns calls  “preemptive diffusion,” meaning you can prevent the crisis by facilitating the release of embarrassing information in the context of your choosing, winning points with voters for transparency and self-awareness.

In Biden’s case, it’s no secret that the party is concerned about an aging straight white male being the standard bearer of the party of diversity and inclusion. As the story has evolved, he has about as many women defending him as accusing him, so it’s not like he would have been without allies. He could have addressed that overriding concern as well as any future complaints about his past actions with a simple paragraph in his stump speech.

“In this campaign, you’re going to hear stories of me being inappropriately affectionate with women I have encountered in political circles over the years. Now, one of my strengths of my candidacy is my decades of experience, and there is no denying that during my time in politics we have progressed in leaps and bounds in our social consciousness. Modern women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and civil rights movements have opened our eyes to the larger injustices as well as the more nuanced ones, including how men treat women with regard to consent to physical contact.

Looking back, I realize that there are times where I have crossed a line on more than one occasion. I offer no excuses for my behavior, but rather a pledge to sincerely apologize to those I have wronged and to recognize the evolution of a woman’s right to control their physical person. It is at the heart of the Democratic Party’s commitment to change consent culture for the better, and my personal commitment to evolve as a candidate and as a person as we grow more aware of the microaggressions that silently poison the interactions between men and women.”

With one statement, he could have eliminated the GOP’s ability to pound him mercilessly over the current crop of accusations, but more importantly, he could have honored those women who genuinely felt they were powerless to complain about his actions.

But he waited too long. The story got out, first with one accuser and then with four more. Then one of his strategists, speaking to the media,  got into the weeds on one of the accuser’s stories in a bizarre dissection of the he said/she said narrative. That was tantamount to shooting himself in both feet, and then congratulating himself on his good aim. Finally, we wind up with a hastily-shot video of Uncle Joe looking directly into the camera saying he’ll be more careful in the future like an accused DUI suspect before a traffic court judge. And that is the communications strategy from the campaign of the Democratic frontrunner, a virtual definition of the term “bumfuzzled.”

  • Hire Media Pros — For the love of Alan Dershowitz, politicians need to stop using attorneys and campaign strategists as spokespeople. Lawyers are trained on how to present evidence and make cases within the narrow confines of the court of law. Some evidence, though truthful and compelling, is not admissible, and can be dismissed or ignored. Further, campaign strategists are athletes in the bloodsport of politics, trained to attack and counterattack, which never works with issues of character. The Court of Public Opinion, however, has no rules. A dusty Polaroid dug out of a dumpster is as admissible as an indictment, and when presented properly, can be more damaging. Attorneys also use stunted formal language that makes many of their public statements incomprehensible to their audience, deflating any potential rehabilitative effects they could have on a campaign. In other words, if you’re fighting a lawsuit or criminal charges. If you’re fighting the media, use a media expert. Finally, stop thinking you can do it yourself because you binge-watched Mad Men and West Wing. I watch the Food Network, but that doesn’t make me Gordon Ramsey.

Not to go all Game of Thrones, but Winter is coming. We are in for a political season that would make Sun Tzu sit up and beg like a Lhasa-Poo who smells bacon. Democrats need to saddle up and prepare real crisis communications strategies and tactics that serve to defuse any potential time-bombs while preserving their dignity.

Tony Panaccio is the co-founder and Chief Media Strategist for Bold Blue Campaigns, a political services company that specializes in state and local campaigns, and one of the country’s leading sources for political polling.

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