The Gong Blog

When the Best Strategy is to Say Nothing

Bob McDonnell

I’ve been in public relations for close to four decades, and based on that experience, I believe that most journalists are fair, conscientious and accurate. Sure, there have been exceptions to the rule, but by and large, my respect for the Fourth Estate runs deep. And so when a reporter calls asking for an interview or quote, I do my best to try to accommodate those requests, even when the issue that has prompted the call is an uncomfortable one. I believe that media relations is a two-way street, and if we are to ask reporters to consider our pitches, we ought to do what we can to provide the context they are looking for.

But that is not always the case. There are occasions when saying nothing is the best strategy. When I was at the FBI, we never talked about ongoing investigations, even to the point where we would not confirm an investigation was ongoing. Similarly, there have been innumerable situations wherein the organization’s legal counsel advised against speaking publicly about a particular matter. Then there are just those times when you have nothing constructive to contribute. Would adding your voice to the story enhance your position, or would declining the opportunity to speak come across as being suspiciously elusive? All of those considerations factor into how and if to respond to such inquiries.

With all that as context, you can imagine my surprise to see former Gov. Bob McDonnell sitting in front of Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes recently to discuss a matter that has long been adjudicated by the courts. But there he was in a segment called Tawdry Tales feeling the need to rehash the legal travails that have left him with $27 million in attorneys’ fees. There were photos of him behind the wheel of Jonnie Williams’ convertible Ferrari, holding up that now infamous Rolex watch and wife Maureen’s New York shopping sprees. Here was Jim Cole, the deputy attorney general who oversaw the McDonnell’s prosecution, reiterating how the governor’s greed compelled the need to file charges. And to echo the theme of avarice, viewers got the chance to hear again from former mansion cook Todd Schneider, whose revelations about what went on beyond the public’s view are what started the legal ball rolling.

Tawdry Tales

“I feel vindicated,” the former Virginia governor tells 60 Minutes, despite Chief Justice John Roberts describing his public corruption case as “tawdry tales.” Bill Whitaker reports.

In resurrecting these since buried ghosts, surely the former governor had some fresh insights he felt compelled to share with the viewing audience; otherwise, why endure such indignities yet again? But no. He offered nothing other than to reiterate his defense (and I’m paraphrasing here): “yes, I was dumb and greedy and acted against the core values on which I have lived my life, but I did nothing criminal in taking tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from a man who really didn’t want anything in return.” Only now he can point out that the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with him, and unanimously at that. A vindication? It hardly seemed like one from this side of the screen.

I could discern no strategic reason why Bob McDonnell would subject himself to this interview, and I only hope that his legal advice has been more judicious than his public relations counsel. As it turns out, Maureen also was asked to sit down for an on-camera chat, but she declined. At least in this case, her advisors – or perhaps her own instincts – were right.

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POSTED IN: Branding, Crisis Communications, Strategic Communications

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