Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign faced the potential of derailing her recent election gains when she went off script and mistakenly praised former first lady Nancy Reagan for her “low-key advocacy” for combating the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Clinton made the laudatory comments in an interview after Reagan’s death, prompting an immediate outcry from some of her staunchest supporters in the LGBT community.
As the LA Times reported, Clinton’s team launched a textbook crisis response that effectively muted the criticism and ultimately turned around even the most outspoken potential critics. Clinton also had one important advantage in this political predicament. She had long-term relationships among leaders in the LGBT community, and her friends rallied to her side, helping her to avoid a potential pitfall in her political campaign.
As soon as Clinton made the remark, her campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told the Times: “It was all hands on deck.” Within hours of the comment, the campaign issued a tweet in which Clinton said she “misspoke” and apologized.
The following day, the campaign issued an essay online in which Clinton wrote: “To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”
Clinton moved past the gaffe by talking about what she would do in the future to fight the disease. She described how she would seek additional funding for research and reductions in the cost of life-saving drugs.
Apologizing quickly to take the steam out of the story and moving forward with proposed solutions are textbook crisis responses. But what is often left out of the textbook are the measures taken long before the misstatement to assure there are allies when a mistake is made.
Clinton has decades of friendships in the LGBT community, and those friends are credible and effective spokespeople on the issue. Their voices helped satisfy the critics that Clinton deserved the community’s forgiveness.
Because of their need to build coalitions to win, political campaigns are much more likely to have these relationships than a company or a nonprofit organization. But effective communications plans always try to avoid a crisis. As part of the communications planning process, companies and other organizations can take a page from political campaigns by identifying who can help and who can hurt them. They can then determine how to enlist those who can help and avoid provoking the ire or attention of those who can hurt.
By anticipating all possibilities, effective communications planning can help ensure that when the mistakes happen—as they will—that your critics will be silent and you will have allies in your corner to help you explain the mistake and move past it.