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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Crisis Tales’

CRISIS TALES: FIVE RULES FOR COPING WITH CRISES IN BUSINESS, POLITICS, AND LIFE
By Lanny J. Davis
Threshold Editions, $27, 381 pages

When his phone rings late at night, Lanny Davis tells us, it could be someone such as Martha Stewart, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, former Sen. Trent Lott or the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Or it could be Gene Upshaw of the NFL's Players Association, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder or Penn State President Rodney Erickson.

At best, the dilemma is a problem of perception that can be solved with a focused public-relations campaign, or just the right persuasive words to the right people. At worst, it's a potential full-blown scandal, threatening to destroy personal, political and financial reputations, as well as individual human lives.

However, in all such cases, Mr. Davis, one of the most consulted among professional crisis managers -- a relatively new profession, but much in demand today with the proliferation of a media guaranteeing that any lie or rumor if sufficiently juicy will go viral instantly -- thinks that no matter what the public crisis or who the person involved, there are five basic rules for combating it:

1) Get all the facts out; 2) put the facts into simple messages; 3) get ahead of the story; 4) fight for the truth using law, media and politics; and 5) never represent yourself in a crisis. These principles, Mr. Davis writes, grow out of one guiding principle: "Tell it all, tell it early, and tell it yourself."

Mr. Davis developed these principles through a career that for 25 years involved increasingly complex experience as a federal litigator and in 1996, led to an appointment as special counsel to President Clinton. With the possible exception of the Nixon White House, there's probably never been a better basic-training site for up-and-coming crisis managers than the White House run by Bill Clinton.

Mr. Davis mentions that President Nixon's crisis managers made "all the fundamental mistakes that make a bad crisis worse," among them, repeated denials and John Ehrlichman's taped "limited modified hang-out" characterization. But to many of us, that was certainly no more damaging than an outright lie: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." And on national television, to boot.

Nevertheless, no matter how you cut it, Mr. Clinton's crisis managers were certainly more effective. True, a national media and its pronounced and undisguised biases had a great deal to do with it. Mr. Clinton's managers, though, were simply better. It was as Mr. Clinton's crisis consigliere that Lanny Davis made his professional bones. It has been his understanding of the media, how to get out ahead of and manage a story, as well as a unique ability to navigate between both political camps that have kept him at the top of his business.

Both Democrats and Republicans have sought and benefited from his experience and advice. In addition to his service in the Clinton administration, Mr. Davis was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. He has appeared frequently on the Fox News Channel and other television networks as a commentator, and has written opinion pieces for a variety of journals and newspapers, including The Washington Times.

His most recent venture, launched with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, is a bipartisan public-affairs firm called Purple Nation Solutions.

In "Crisis Tales," he applies his principles of crisis management to a number of high-profile contemporary crises, some of them touching on profound policy issues, others tempests in Washington teapots, including work with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Benghazi, drones, Solyndra and the president's golf date with Tiger Woods, to name a few.

There's also a fascinating story involving former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, The New York Times, "Doonesbury," and Mr. Davis, illustrating what happened -- and why -- when he violated one of his own basic rules by representing himself in a crisis.

All in all, written in clear, quick, conversational prose, "Crisis Tales" provides a wealth of sensible advice for handling crises of all sizes and shapes, whether affecting individual businesses, institutions or nations -- for the price of the book, advice and counsel free of charge from one of our leading crisis-meisters.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).

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