Friday, June 13, 2008 | 2 a.m.
BLOGGERS LET GIBBONS HAVE IT
The morning after Gov. Jim Gibbons acknowledged that he had exchanged 867 text messages with a Reno woman, the media and blog commentators had a field day. Here’s a sampling of Web site headlines:
If ever a governor needed some good PR, it would be the sore-thumbed Jim Gibbons.
Crisis management experts on both coasts conceded that a married governor’s attempt to defend 867 text messages exchanged — some in the very early-morning hours — with a married woman as harmless chatter between friends would challenge the most skilled public relations strategists.
Even so, Gibbons could have done much to stem the tide of ridicule that came through reporters’ questions at his news conference Wednesday about his frequent texts to the now-estranged wife of a Reno doctor, they said.
The first thing Gibbons might have done is forget the news conference, said Michael Sitrick, whose Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Co. has provided crisis management to help celebrities and huge companies alike deal with damaging publicity or unfamiliar predicaments.
“The problem is, with a press conference, it tends to be a feeding frenzy,” Sitrick said Thursday. “Heads you lose, tails you lose. I think I would have made a statement, not taken questions. Said, ‘She was a friend, I’m having the e-mails looked at,’ and left it at that.”
At Wednesday’s news conference with print reporters, Gibbons claimed the text messages he exchanged with the Reno woman over six weeks during the 2007 legislative session did not prove that he was having an affair, as his wife of 22 years alleged after he filed for divorce this spring. The governor insisted the texts were simply messages between two platonic friends.
Gibbons held up his two thumbs, as if holding a BlackBerry, to show how he types on the device, adding that he could knock out a text message in tenths of a second.
Then came the questions. Were these love notes? How many times did you sleep with the woman? Are you still texting her? Did you break up?
And the feeding frenzy was on, duly reported across the country, including by The New York Times.
“Everyone always wants to do a press conference,” said Jim Haggerty, president of The P.R. Consulting Co. in Washington, D.C., and author of “In the Court of Public Opinion: Winning Your Case With Public Relations.”
“The problem is, they are inherently uncontrollable, where you have reporters who begin shouting questions and the questions feed off one another,” Haggerty said. “It’s really a mistake when you’re starting off with a set of weak facts.”
Powerful people often think they can be handed a talking-point sheet before a news conference and then handle whatever comes their way. “But in an adversarial situation, it never works so easily,” Haggerty said.
Even with the news conference, Sitrick said, Gibbons could have put the gasps about the number of text messages to rest by demonstrating how quickly one can be generated.
Sitrick rattled off a possible exchange between two text-messagers: “How are you?” “I’m fine. And you?” “Good. What are you doing today?” “Not much. How about you?” “Not much.”
“That’s five texts in what, a matter of seconds? It’s not like five telephone calls. You’ve got to put things in context and not let other people, not let reporters, define you.”
Although no one has seen the texts, if the governor could retrieve them — a doubtful proposition given that they were sent and likely deleted more than a year ago — he should have someone above reproach, “like a retired judge, an ethics professor, a professor from the UNLV law school,” read them, Sitrick said.
“That takes it out of the he-said, she-said realm,” Sitrick said. “You say, ‘Look, I’ve shown these e-mails to judge so-and-so, and he’s opined X.”
And what about the woman on the other end of the texts, Kathy Karrasch?
“It’s got to be disturbing to her, too,” Sitrick said. “And so, should she be talking? Would she deny it, too, and back up what the governor says?”
To get clients ready for such news conferences, or to help them decide whether to even hold one, Sitrick has ex-reporters on his staff put them through a grilling at a mock conference.
“It gives someone an idea of the questions that will come and whether or not they want to take them,” he said.
All of which helps give someone at the center of a public relations nightmare a modicum of control.
“It’s almost never the original thing that kills the politician,” said Dale Leibach, former assistant press secretary for President Carter and co-founder of Prism Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based company. “It is what happens after, and it goes to truth and candor.”
The heart of which might lie in those hundreds of texts — the contents of which only two people in Northern Nevada know for sure.