The Ins and Outs of Crisis Management From Lanny Davis, a Seasoned Veteran

The DC lawyer has a new book, “Crisis Tales.”

By: Carol Ross Joynt

There are certain kinds of people you hope never to need—an oncologist or a criminal lawyer, for example—but because some people do need them, they are there. In the past 15 years Washington has seen the rise of another kind of hope-to-avoid professional: the crisis counselor. One of the first, and still one of the most prolific, is lawyer Lanny Davis.

Davis says his first early brush with the practice of crisis management was in the late 1980s when he represented a defense contractor who was in a dispute with the Pentagon, but it didn’t come to full flower as a profession for him until 1996, when he went to work for President Bill Clinton to handle issues that pertained to campaign finance abuse. His title was special counsel to the President.

“When I sat at my desk that first morning,” he says, “I realized the intersection of everything I’d done in my life—law, media, politics—but now the stakes were the highest they could be.” He was there for 14 months and, ironically, left ten days before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. He says he arrived as a “novice” and Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, taught him the ropes. “He is the greatest friend, and a wise person, and I give him every ounce of credit for where I am today, and none of the blame.”

Davis has thrived since. He is a familiar face on television talk shows—called in either to defend a client or to offer opinions on one scandal or another. Over the years his clients have included Martha Stewart, Dan Snyder, the Office of the President at Penn State University, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, the cruise ship company Royal Caribbean, congressman Charles Rangel, Gene Upshaw and the NFL Players Association, Macy’s, and at least a couple of African nations. He was a Yale classmate of George W. Bush, who, as President, appointed him to a civil liberties oversight board established under the Intelligence Reform Act.

Davis has put his crisis management experiences and lessons together in Crisis Tales, his third book, a page turner for anyone who thrives on adrenaline or the tribulations of big shots. It begins with the “five rules of crisis management.” They are 1) get all the facts out, 2) put the facts into simple messages, 3) get ahead of the story, 4) fight for the truth using law, media, and politics, and 5) never represent yourself in a crisis. He will tell you he learned that last one the hard way.

Next Tuesday a mixed bag of influential friends—McCurry, Ted Olson, David Boies, Grover Norquist, Erskine Bowles, George Stephanopoulos, and former governors Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge—are throwing a book party for him. Davis is doing everything possible under the mantel of hype to make sure the soiree is the “it” party of the week, the month, the year. It had to change venues, to the spacious Hamilton, due to the high number of RSVPs, indicating that people in Washington know to show up and be counted, because you never know. As Davis inscribes in books, “Hope you never need my services.”

Here’s the highlights of a conversation we had on Thursday:

What did you learn at the White House?

The only way crisis management can be done is if lawyers and media are talking together. If there’s division between the two, the lawyers will dominate and the wrong advice will be given. And I say that as a lawyer.

One of your rules is to fight back with facts. Is that an absolute?

It is an absolute, because the facts are coming out anyway. It’s not a choice of getting bad facts out or not getting bad facts out. You can’t keep a secret. Get them out yourself and do the best you can. The only exception is if it is a criminal case because you can’t talk to the media without the lawyer’s approval. You may not have all the facts the attorney has because he has attorney-client privilege. If a comment to a reporter is going to put my client in jail, then crisis management rules have to be set aside.

Like an emergency room doctor, do you have to separate the case from your personal emotions?

It’s very similar. The personal emotion, especially if you bonded with your client, which I usually do, and then to convince that client to allow me to collaborate with a reporter who is trying to hurt the client—that is really hard. President Clinton could never understand that. But if I talk to a reporter, [he or she] may write the less bad story.

You have five rules for crisis management. Is one more important than the others, and why?

Facts. Everything begins and ends with a willingness to tell a reporter all the facts, especially the bad ones. Your whole strategy is about dealing with facts and trying to come up with a plausible characterization of the facts. You can’t mess with the facts. The minute you try, a reporter will sense it, and you’re out of business. You hurt your client.

What kind of crisis situations put you off?

Private life indiscretions, because there really is no easy answer to telling the truth about infidelity or anything that is personally embarrassing. I’m not sure I could follow my own advice if it has to do with confessing to a wife or loved one that you’ve done something wrong.

Could you have handled the case of former CIA director General Petraeus after his affair with Paula Broadwell was made public?

Yes. He did all the wrong things and still is. He should have done what [former vice presidential candidate] Geraldine Ferraro did [a long press conference fielding every question], and that story would have gone away quickly.

Is it important that a client be sympathetic?

Yes—sympathy is very important as a strategic goal, and there’s only one way to get it: You have to be the real deal and tell the truth. [Former congressman] Gary Condit is a good example of trying to achieve sympathy but doing it wrong by going on TV, which he was entitled to do because he was wrongly accused of murder [in the case of Chandra Levy]. But then he wouldn’t tell the truth about the sexual relationship, and he was killed in the media. [Former senator] John Edwards tried to get sympathy, and probably could have gotten sympathy, but he went on TV and didn’t tell the truth.

You rely on reporters, but as people in your line of work become more effective, do the members of the media become less effective?

Yes and no. They are more effective because I help them break the stories. I help them write the predicate story—beginning, middle, end, over and out. I make them more effective because I give them the story. I also make other reporters less effective, because after that there’s nothing more to write.

What about when whom you represent tarnishes your own reputation?

There’s a great example—trying to be my own crisis manager—and I violated every rule. I ostensibly represented the Ivory Coast government when there was a military civil war. The incumbent lost reelection, and I was retained by the Ivory Coast embassy to try to get him out of the country without any bloodshed. But I couldn’t tell the media I was working with the State Department to help President Obama place a call to this guy in his bunker [to convince him to leave]. For ten days I was killed on the Internet as a defender of this defeated incumbent, and I couldn’t defend myself. Finally, I resigned. The New York Times wrote a very nasty story about me.

Is your new book relatable to the average person? Should people today assume that at some point they may need a crisis counselor?

Yes. It starts when you are a child and grabbing a cookie when your mother isn’t looking and you think you can get away with it. Every time you do something wrong, you are going to get caught. You dissemble or tell a half truth, and you think you are getting away with it. You’re not. Don’t do it.

What is one of the most universal subjects people lie about?

Sex.

Do crisis and Washington go together like a hand and a glove?

With the fishbowl of the media, a lot of politicians, and all of them making the wrong crisis management decisions, you have more blow-ups here than anywhere. Politicians make the wrong judgment about dealing with crisis quickly.

Why in 2013 are The Oprah Winfrey Show and a handful of daytime talk shows still the conventional confessional? Can Twitter, Facebook, and other social media play a more modern role?

You put someone on Oprah because you are trying to evoke sympathy. You are not giving people the answers to all their questions because she does not go for answers. [Social media] can serve as a way of generating interest and little factoids, but they are bad because a little factoid is a distortion, and distortion is what kills you.

In modern political life, who do you think is the most effectively redeemed figure?

Bill Clinton.

How often are you called to stop the crisis cycle before it explodes? Or is explosion inevitable if you are in the picture?

The second question hurts my feelings. People don’t know the facts. Ninety-nine percent of what I do, nobody knows. I’m off the record. No footprints. I’m helping reporters write stories, and my name isn’t involved. I have to stay invisible so I don’t become the story, unless the client needs someone out there to publicly defend them, which is very rare.

Could you represent Oscar Pistorius?

Yes. Get him to do the right thing—tell the truth—but only after his criminal lawyer does what he has to do.

How about Jerry Sandusky?

No. I couldn’t represent an evil person, even if my recommendation was to tell the truth that you are evil. Nor could I represent an evil country.