Northam’s Press Conference Delivers Crisis-Comms Tips

Thom Weidlich 02.07.19


It’s been some time since we’ve seen a mess messier than the one Virginia Governor Ralph Northam finds himself in. The incident, especially Northam’s weekend press conference, raises some crisis communications ABCs — and mistakes.

Famously, it was alleged last Friday that Northam appeared in a photo on his page in his 1984 medical-school yearbook dressed in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan outfit. There have been almost universal calls for him to resign as governor.

The main messiness was that the day the story broke, Feb. 1, Northam admitted he was one of the two people portrayed, though he wasn’t sure which. Then the next day, he held a 42-minute press conference during which he said he had determined he isn’t in the picture after all.

The Democrat realized this after talking to some old friends and a former roommate. He said he hadn’t submitted the photo to the yearbook editors, never bought the yearbook, and didn’t lay eyes on the photo until Friday. He was told that several pics in the yearbook had ended up on the wrong pages.

This raised some issues.

We begin with one of our basic preferences: We don’t like press conferences. They’re hard to control. Evidence of this arose in Northam’s presser, especially when the governor nearly moonwalked.

But the most important lesson is that Northam (pictured) had apparently spoken out on Friday before he knew the full facts. It’s best to keep in mind the journalism adage: Better to be second and accurate than first and wrong. Northam said he’s continuing to investigate the situation — in fact, trying to get ahold of the yearbook — and asked people not to rush to judgment.

Fessed Up

A reporter asked if that wasn’t what he had done the day before when he fessed up to being in a photograph he now says he wasn’t.

His reply was a pretty interesting example of the urgency crisis communicators can feel at the beginning of a problem scenario. “When this broke yesterday afternoon, there were just a lot of people calling and I just felt like I needed to talk to them and to put out a statement that this is unacceptable to have a picture such as that in the yearbook on my page,” he said. “So that’s why I started reaching out to people.”

It’s good to respond quickly, but you can only state what you know for certain. Northam made a mistake in not carefully evaluating what he knew at that point. It reminds us of the recent situation in which the Diocese of Covington in Kentucky condemned the behavior of its Catholic school students in the recent standoff with Native Americans in Washington, D.C.; afterward, further video turned up that appeared to call their guilt into question.

Another crazy aspect of the presser was that Northam admitted that — also in 1984 — he had entered a dance contest dressed as Michael Jackson, including blackface. Here he was invoking the first rule of crisis communications: Get out in front of the story. In this case, he was trying to preempt a crisis if knowledge (or a picture) of that incident appeared.

The Michael Jackson revelation nearly led to what could have been a major blooper. A reporter asked the governor if he could still moonwalk. When Northam appeared to be looking for space near the podium to demonstrate his skills, his wife, Pam (who, naturally, stood by his side), stopped him, saying it wasn’t the appropriate time. That tidbit probably got the most attention from the press conference.

Still, it could have been worse. He could have moonwalked.

Photo Credit: Virginia Governor’s Office via Flickr

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