Virginia governor’s scandal offers lessons in crisis comms and planning

A yearbook photo dating back 35 years has the state’s top official on the hot seat. As old deeds and behaviors come under new scrutiny, executives and communicators should prepare.

Northam muddles through blackface blowback

The ongoing scandal involving Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook opens a new page in crisis communications.

Northam’s medical school yearbook page from 1984 shows a photo of one person in blackface and another in a hooded Ku Klux Klan costume. Amid muddled messaging, the governor has resisted calls for his resignation.

The incident illustrates how pre-digital photos can be uploaded and shared on social media, where they can spread virally.

Corporations typically review past news reports and social media accounts of and about their CEOs when preparing PR crisis plans. They also review public statements and social media content of high-level job applicants. Now, companies must examine not only yearbooks of top executives but all published materials, including speeches, letters, interviews and audio recordings.

Some public relations experts recommend background checks going back at least 25 years on all senior level and board hires. Potentially damaging texts or images could involve images or remarks that observers could perceive as offensive for a wide range of reasons. Statements, photos or behavior that may have been passable 10 or 20 years ago may not be accepted now—and might even be viewed as abhorrent.

Youth is not a viable excuse

“Nowadays, ‘I was in my youth’ is no longer an explanation,” crisis communications consultant Eric Dezenhall told The Wall Street Journal. “And racism is the cyanide pill of scandals. There’s no way to get out of it.”

Some PR crisis experts recommend disclosing unethical or otherwise ill-advised behavior before it’s revealed by others. Dezenhall, however, recommends against such preemptive actions.

“The advice of ‘Get it all out there’ is a pre-social media phenomenon. Any morsel of info you give will be savaged,” he told the Journal.

Instead, seek possible explanations for potentially problematic content. Seek acquaintances who could provide context for the incident in question.

Experts also offer this advice to avoid Northam’s predicament:

Be consistent. If an indiscretion is publicized, maintain a steady response. Backtracking can damage credibility and exacerbate the scandal. Northam first apologized for the racist photo, and then denied he was in the photo. He did volunteer that in the 1980s he had put shoe polish on his face in a separate incident as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

Such waffling is a bad idea, says Marcus Messner, associate director at the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“If you have to change your story in the middle of a crisis, all credibility is lost. Changing the story from one day to another … it’s a disaster,” Messner told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Inform your team. Notify internal staff about potential scandal-causing content so they aren’t blindsided if questioned, Lawrence Parnell, associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, told the Times-Dispatch.

Get the facts first. Understanding the full story is more important than a speedy response, says Kirk Dorn, a senior director at Ceisler Media. The governor’s staff should have first determined exactly how the yearbook was assembled and whether students had approved their pages.

Practice. Before speaking publicly, the crisis communications team should anticipate every possible question and draft an appropriate answer. Hold a practice Q&A session, on video if possible, to review the performance and body language. “When you face reporters, if you get an unexpected question you’re not prepared to answer, don’t wing it,” Dorn warns. “It’s preferable to say, “We’ll get back to you,’ than to risk a mistake.”

William Comcowich is interim CEO at  


One Response to “Virginia governor’s scandal offers lessons in crisis comms and planning”

    Arthur Solomon says:

    While there is a lot of good advice from PR execs in your article, I believe that one of the most important factors — if not the most important one — in handling a crisis is missing. That is when crafting a response to a crisis throw out the past playbook. Rewrite it according to the current crisis. Each one should be handled differently according to the situation. Unlike a garment, there is no one size fits all crisis response.

    I also don’t agree that changing a response to a crisis means a loss of credibility. History shows that undiscovered information may materialize at any time from unknown and unexpected sources. New accusations demand new answers and sometime a reworking of the crisis plan that was decided upon and implemented a few hours ago.

    Flexibility is a must, in my opinion, in crisis PR and none crisis PR. Daily Headlines

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