JAN. 22, 2019 — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s statement disputing the BuzzFeed report that President Trump directed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress, raises an important question for media relations professionals, journalists and, for the matter, the general public:
Does the fact Mueller didn’t dispute previous news reports about his investigation mean they are accurate?
Federal law enforcement officials are often tight-lipped, especially while investigations are under way. Revealing too much information, for example, can make it more difficult to obtain witness cooperation or gather evidence. Sometimes it can prejudice the rights of a defendant or unfairly damage the reputation of a person. That’s why Department of Justice personnel “generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations,” according to policy.
Of course, Mueller’s probe into Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election is no secret. Nor was the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Nonetheless, according to a longstanding unwritten practice, “the DOJ is to avoid overt law enforcement and prosecutorial activities close to an election, typically within 60 or 90 days of Election Day.”
Comey’s Slippery Slope
That didn’t stop James Comey, then FBI director, from conducting a news conference in July of 2016, criticizing Clinton’s email practices but saying the FBI would not recommend that she be prosecuted. Comey’s step onto a slippery slope in midsummer became a full-blown, crash-landing on his keester in October when he felt compelled to announce just days before the general election that the Clinton investigation had been reopened with the discovery of new emails from a separate probe.
By straying from DOJ policy, has Mueller set himself up for a similar fate? Will journalists expect Mueller to provide comment when the next sensational report about his investigation is published? Will the American public assume a “no comment” from the special counsel means the report is accurate?
To prevent this, Mueller, and his spokesperson, Peter Carr, should have included a disclaimer in their response to BuzzFeed’s report. For example, they could have said, “This office’s silence on any previous and future news reports should not be interpreted as confirmation or denial of the reporting.”
If nothing else, this language would help manage expectations. By all accounts, Mueller and Carr are sticklers for policies and procedures. So, too, are the many PR practitioners who stand behind their policies of not commenting on rumors and speculation only to deny, for example, merger and acquisition reports based on anonymous sources when the company’s stock priced takes a hit. There are exceptions to every rule.
Until his report is issued, Mueller must resist the temptation to speak out on the sensational reports that are sure to be published amid the news media’s feeding frenzy on the Trump administration. If not, and if the investigation drags in to 2020, then the special counsel’s response to last week’s BuzzFeed report could become the banana peel that lands Mueller on his backside right next to Comey.
Aug. 16, 2018 — As a crisis communicator, I often watch news conferences to see how leaders respond to highly sensitive issues. As a crisis communicator and a Catholic living in Pittsburgh, I watched with special interest as Bishop David Zubik addressed reporters when a grand jury report accused more than 300 priests of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children at six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania since the 1960s.
I give Bishop Zubik credit. The leader of the Pittsburgh diocese stood in front of the cameras and microphones and addressed the issue head on. As a practical matter, this news was too big to issue a carefully crafted statement. Surely, Bishop Zubik would have been followed everywhere by reporters and photo journalists until he made an on-camera response about the grand jury report. Also, it wouldn’t have been fair to issue comments from the safety of his diocese email account when his brother priests would face parishioners at mass in the following days.
Nonetheless, Bishop Zubik demonstrated contrition and sincerity during the news conference. His apology was unqualified. Moreover, his remarks were poignant. For example, when referring to the grand jury report as the voice of victims, Bishop Zubik said, “We hear you, the church hears … I hear you.”
In addition, Bishop Zubik announced the diocese is taking additional steps to prevent abuse, such as hiring an expert in the prevention and prosecution of child sexual abuse to review diocese policies and practices. This is the type of leadership that is necessary to restore the trust and confidence in times of crisis.
The use of a chart, however, to illustrate the dramatic reduction since the 1980s in sexual abuse cases left what I’m sure was an unintended but nonetheless unfortunate message. Bishop Zubik should have said that even one reported instance of sexual abuse is one too many.
Beginning the news conference with a prayer seemed awkward at first. Then it got more awkward. The news conference was conducted on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, which is the Roman Catholic celebration of Virgin Mary’s ascension to heaven. During his prayer, Bishop Zubik mentioned the feast and Mary’s untangling of knots, which is a reference to how her life was devoted to undoing the “knot” created when Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. If you’re not familiar with the devotion to the “Undoer of Knots,” then you were left to think Bishop Zubik was equating “tangled knots” with a grand jury alleging massive criminal behavior.
The decision to publish on the diocese website a list of diocesan priests accused of sexual abuse was a positive development. Additionally, Bishop Zubik said the church no longer requires confidentiality when settling sexual abuse cases. That’s good because transparency is critical element of any successful crisis communications plan. It’s interesting, however, that church leadership got the religion just as the grand jury was preparing to publish its report.