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Why The Nixon Response Can Be Fatal To Issue And Crisis Management

By Hinda Mitchell

As I’ve watched a number of recent issues and crises play out – across all sorts of industries – I see a common occurrence that sets up businesses and organizations for failure. It’s what I’m affectionately calling “Nixon Response.”

In the world of media relations – we say: “don’t repeat the negative.” That’s good instruction, but tougher to execute in practice.

Instead, the Nixon Response takes over. What does that look like? Simple to see, when I outline it here. Then-President Nixon was asked at the outset of the Watergate scandal, “Are you a crook?” And then his brief, but infamous, response that today still rings true as a primary example of repeating the negative, “I am not a crook.”

From that point on, anything he had to say was disregarded. His follow up answers fell to the cutting room floor, never to be heard. Copy writers across the nation had a gem of a headline.

So given that this occurred in 1973, why does it still hold so much relevance for communicators and those they advise? Because today, we’re still doing the same thing. Only this time, we do it across platforms. We repeat the negative and go on the defense in the media, in social media and even in internal communications with employees.

Nixon only had to deal with three major television networks. Today, we have hundreds of thousands of places a comment like that can be picked up – and online communications can cause these statements to be worldwide in a matter of seconds. More importantly, in doing so, what we do is amplify our detractors by repeating what they accuse us of, even if it has no semblance of truth – or even if it does.

In the era of trust-building and transparency, it becomes even more important to avoid making negative statements and to swiftly pivot to a more favorable message – even if it is a difficult one. While we must address the issue at hand – whether it be an environmental incident, a food recall, white-collar crime or a labor dispute – we don’t have to say things like, “We are not a polluter. Our food production facility is not full of rats. Our company is not skirting labor laws.”

It is essential to listen to the issue at hand – not to the question or accusation itself. Most questions raised are about a concern – and it is likely to be a legitimate one. Are they asking about environmental responsibility? Answer with your commitment to compliance. Are they worried about the safety of the food you produce? Let them know you share their concern and are addressing any issues. And remind them that you also consume the same foods. Do they think you are a sub-standard employer or that you are treating employees poorly?  Let them know you are following the rules and that you want to do the right thing by your workers.

When asked a question about a problem – answer with solutions. Above all, don’t forget to say you CARE. Underscore your commitment to being responsible – no matter what the issue. And don’t forget – avoid repeating the negative, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding the Nixon Response.

Category: Crisis Communications, Reputation, Media Relations, Issues Management, Crisis Management