Sept., 29, 2018 — At the end of the long and surreal testimony on sexual assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there was an important lesson for the practitioners of issues management and crisis communications: emotional issues cannot be won on the facts alone.
Rarely have the differences between emotions and facts been displayed so dramatically as they were yesterday on Capitol Hill. Questions from Rachel Mitchell, the outside counsel hired by Republican senators to ask questions on their behalf during the Senate Judiciary Committee, paled in comparison to the compelling remarks from Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Mitchell’s measured and meticulous inquiries about the minutia of Ford’s story were designed to reveal inconsistencies and gaps but seemed wholly insignificant in relation to the disturbing and riveting details of the alleged assault.
Kavanaugh, too, brought a high level of emotion to his opening remarks and subsequent questions. Visibly angry, Kavanaugh portrayed himself as the victim of an unfair and partisan attack. The anecdote about his 10-year-old daughter suggesting her family pray for Ford tugged at heartstrings.
During the question-and-answer session, however, Mitchell was permitted to query Kavanaugh in her methodical manner … only to have the Republican senators take the microphone back. Sen. Lindsey Graham was the most vocal. He realized emotional messaging was required if his position was to prevail.
In fairness, Mitchell had a difficult assignment. Challenging a sexual assault survivor’s recall of the events from more than 30 years ago in a series of five-minute increments on live television is highly unusual, uncomfortable and ultimately unproductive. Mitchell said so at the end of her questioning of Ford.
It’s likely we will never know all the facts in connection with the alleged assault, which is common in many issues and crises. But that doesn’t stop audiences from forming opinions based on their beliefs. That’s why meaningful changes in attitude require a personal or emotional appeal.
At the conclusion of Ford’s testimony, many said Kavanaugh’s nomination was in peril because his accuser was so sincere and credible. If Kavanaugh had not responded with emotions of his own, it’s likely the president would be seeking a new candidate for the Supreme Court.