Crisis communications experts dissect Whitman’s response to housekeeper story

More than a week after it was revealed that Meg Whitman employed an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper for more than nine years, Whitman is still facing questions about the issue and how it may affect her standing with Latino voters.

The issue dominated Saturday’s gubernatorial debate. A headline in the Spanish-language daily said a “war” had broken out over California’s Latino vote. Whitman herself sat down with Spanish-language stations to try to limit any potential damage from the allegations.

Whitman’s campaign has tried to shift the spotlight to Brown, who the Whitman campaign says is using this issue as an orchestrated political hit. Whitman offers no evidence of those allegations, and the Brown campaign has responded that Whitman is desperately trying to change the subject.

Has Whitman’s campaign successfully fended off a potentially damaging political issue? Or will this be the beginning of the unraveling of the most expensive campaign in California history? What did the Whitman team do right, and what should the candidate and her political operation have done differently?

We spoke to a number of experts of corporate and political crisis communications about the Whitman campaign’s rapid-response strategy.

Not since revelations about her voting record first surfaced last year has the scrutiny on Whitman been so intense. And by most accounts, Whitman’s campaign, and the candidate herself, did not initially handle that issue particularly well.

The Whitman campaign clearly knew this issue was coming. Whitman spokesman Rob Stutzman and campaign attorney Tom Hiltachk held a conference call with reporters, preempting attorney Gloria Allred’s initial press conference with one of their own, promising documents that would offer Whitman, at the very least, plausible deniability.

After Allred’s press conference, the campaign released documents that showed the housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, apparently falsified documents in an effort to appear as if she was eligible to work in the United States.

Allred said she had documents that would reveal that Whitman and her husband did, in fact, know about Diaz Santillan’s immigration status. She promised to produce a letter from the Social Security Administration notifying the Whitmans that their housekeeper’s Social Security number did not match the name they had on file associated with that number.

When Allred scheduled a second press conference for Thursday, the campaign went into preemption mode again. This time, Whitman herself spoke to reporters at a hastily called press conference in Santa Monica. The spin from the campaign for the day was that if there was such a letter sent, it must have been intercepted by Diaz Santillan.

“She may have intercepted the letter, it’s very possible, I have no other explanation,” Whitman said, standing alongside her husband, Dr. Griffith Harsh. “Nicky did bring in the mail and sort the mail. If she got a letter two weeks before alerting her to a problem and saying we’re going to alert your employer … It pains me to say that because, gosh, that’s not the Nicky I knew.”

As it turned out, Whitman was walking right into a trap set by Allred. They had the original letter that apparently had a hand-written note from Harsh asking Diaz Santillan to “look into this.”

In response, Stutzman and Hiltachk held another conference call. This time, their strategy was to blame the vast, left-wing conspiracy and the Brown campaign. Stutzman called it part of a “coordinated political attack” between Allred, labor unions and Brown, offering little evidence that any coordination existed.

The issue prompted the most heated exchange between the two candidates at Saturday’s debate in Fresno. Whitman accused Brown of being directly involved in pushing Diaz to the forefront, telling Brown, “you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk, you put her out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions.”

Brown said Whitman’s reaction to the issue shows she is unfit to lead. “You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions, but you don’t take accountability and you can’t be a leader unless you’re willing to stand on your own two feet and say, yeah, I made a mistake and I’m going on from here.”

Should Whitman have apologized? Not necessarily say some communications experts.

Elizabeth Ashford is a crisis communications consultant who helped coordinate the public relations efforts of BP in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. Ashford also worked as a senior communications deputy and chief deputy cabinet secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She says apologizing holds its own set of political dangers for Whitman. “I think the words ‘I’m sorry’ need to be judiciously used,” says Ashford. “If Whitman feels confident that she made every effort to abet and abide by the law, saying sorry could just ring hollow.”
But Ashford said, “I do think it’s a missed opportunity. You don’t want to seem defensive but you can make gains by admitting some fault,” she said. “I think voters relate to that.”

Ashford says Whitman’s response is a traditionally corporate response, but may not be sufficient for the political arena.

“When you’re leading a company you generally report on results and if something is going to impact your market value,” says Ashford. “But when you’re in public service – or aspiring to it – you have a responsibility to explain a much wider range of decisions, including very personal ones.

Whitman’s political challenge is to “become the candidate regular voters can relate to,” she says. “One of Whitman’s main challenges is transcending her real success,” she said.
Chris Lehane has made a reputation as a crisis communications specialist. He is a Brown partisan – Lehane was part of an independent expenditure committee that ran ads against Whitman. He said Whitman’s campaign could have done more to preempt this story.

“Clearly the campaign had some knowledge on this issue,” said Lehane. “This should have been preemptively dealt with at some point. You always want to put it out on your own terms, your own time, your own choosing.”

 But it’s not that simple. Whitman said she learned about Diaz Santillan’s immigration status in June 2009 as she was preparing her campaign for governor. Her primary challenger, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, had staked out positions to Whitman’s right including a hard-line stance on immigration. Poizner announced his support for the Arizona immigration law and called for elimination of some state services for undocumented residents.

“There are two schools of thought. The first is you inoculate yourself with the flu shot,” said one Republican communications consultant. “That would have been getting this out a year and half ago. But I think Poizner would have attacked her unmercifully,” if she had revealed this during the primary campaign.

 Lehane admitted as much but said Whitman made matters worse by taking an aggressive stand on immigration during the primary campaign. “Her campaign has pushed so hard that (the issue of hiring illegal immigrants) should be the employer responsibility when they knew they had this issue. That’s not something they needed to do. It’s like a preemptively self-inflicted wound.”

 But Lehane said Whitman may have made the story worse with her press conference Thursday. In an effort to preempt Allred, Whitman said she would take a lie-detector test to prove she and her husband had no knowledge of Diaz Santillan’s immigration status. She also suggested her former housekeeper may have stolen the letter from the Social Security Administratio
n addressed to Harsh.

“The sound you hear out there is the trap closing,” Lehane said.

The latest statewide poll by Ipsos/Reuters shows that most California voters say the issue makes no difference to them in deciding who to vote for. But with the race so close, the winner will be decided on the margins.

The true political impact of Nicandra Diaz Santillan, and Whitman’s response to her coming forward, will not fully be known until Election Day.

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