Watch out DeSantis; The Media Loves to Declare a Crisis to be “Mishandled” Whether it is or isn’t
There are crises, and then there are CRISES. If you’re a corporate CEO, it’s one thing to put together a plan for managing bad media driven by a consumer group, and it’s another thing to manage a factory explosion.
In our world, we make distinctions between chronic attacks (a company in a disfavored industry under constant criticism from regulators or interest groups) and an acute crisis (the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster). They require different strategies and tactics and a different skill set from the team assigned to manage the predicament.
For politicians, it’s one thing to develop a campaign plan to win a hotly contested election, it’s another thing to govern, and yet another thing altogether to manage an actual disaster. Think of George W. Bush on 9/11. He first sat stupefied in a classroom of children, then flew around the country on a flight to nowhere before he pulled himself together and addressed the nation that night. Compare that to NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who ran to the scene and for several days seemed to be everywhere and never resting. Of course, while Bush was criticized immediately after the attacks, he was applauded for weeks afterward because of his basic decency. Giuliani was overpraised for just being there.
Natural and artificial disasters can make or break a politician. The most epic story of a natural disaster impacting an election was the primary win in February 1979 of Chicago’s first female mayor, Jane Byrne.
When Mayor Richard Daley died in 1976 after serving for 21 years as mayor of Chicago, he was succeeded by a protégé, Mike Bilandic. With the Daley Machine behind him, he was a shoo-in for re-election until two 20-inch snowstorms hit Chicago back-to-back in early January. Bilandic’s response was lethargic. Streets and mass transit were shut down for days. The Chicago media beat the crap out of him, and Jane Byrne, who was expected to get slaughtered, won the primary and, of course, in Democratic Chicago, the general election in November.
Hurricane Ian, which is about to hit Florida, will surely be a tragedy for Florida residents. I’ll be hoping and praying they come through it. But I’ll also be watching it from the crisis manager’s eye to see how the media covers Gov. Ron DeSantis. Politico has already declared that the hurricane will be DeSantis’ “true test.” (I wonder what they’ll say if there’s another hurricane in October or November?) But whether it’s a “true test” or not, one thing I’m sure of- he’s annoyed enough people in the media that he will be graded as hard as possible.
The truth is that credit and blame are ascribed to politicians for various things they have little control over. They are often the beneficiaries or victims of external forces. The Federal Reserve has more power over the economy than the President, but that is not who we blame.
However, in most cases, the media and punditocracy’s default position is to declare a crisis “mishandled.” Why didn’t the CEO zig when he should have zagged? Why didn’t the Governor call out the National Guard three hours earlier? Why didn’t the first responders have the latest, most expensive equipment available for this once-in-a-lifetime event?
Which gets us to Ron DeSantis. I suspect DeSantis will do a good job on the theatrics. Like him or not, he’s a talented speaker, good on his feet and understands the visuals. But the visuals of a disaster are what they are: everyone will see downed power lines, people sitting on rooftops waiting to be rescued, and others crying into cameras about missing loved ones.
Desantis needs to go into this knowing the coverage is overdetermined – there are things the media have already written. What hasn’t been written yet are the actions he takes and the display of basic human empathy, which should be the one variable within his control.
But rather than acknowledge that many things are not in the control of CEOs, Governors, Mayors, first responders, or FEMA, much of the media defaults to finding flaws in the planning and execution if things don’t go perfectly. And God help the CEO, Governor, or Mayor who doesn’t show enough “empathy” when describing the disaster. By my unscientific calculation, no leader has ever shown enough empathy, according to the media.
Watch for these phrases to be featured in the coverage of DeSantis’ managing of Hurricane Ian: “Lacking in empathy,” “acting like a technocrat and not a leader,” and “losing the confidence of his constituents.”
Whether he deserves it or not is not the point. The media takes scalps over the minor things. Over something as big as a hurricane, the tomahawks are being sharpened. This crisis I almost certain to be declared “mishandled.”
In other news, life is unfair.