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.

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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

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