5 rules for candidates and public officials facing an unexpected crisis in politics.

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The only thing predictable about politics and public life is that the unexpected will happen. The unexpected happens in campaigns. The unexpected and unpredictable happens to elected public officials, who cannot always foresee a calamity, or be well prepared when it happens.

History does not condemn those ill-prepared for a crisis. It does judge them on how they handle it.

Four months into his presidency, President John Kennedy faced a crisis. In the administration of his predecessor, the CIA had planned and funded a clandestine invasion of Cuba. The plan was to overthrow Castro, and the CIA assured Kennedy it would work. What we now call the Bay of Pigs was an unmitigated disaster.

Kennedy did not blame his predecessor, nor did he blame the CIA. Instead, he went before the nation and accepted full responsibility for something that happened on his watch.

His popularity soared.

The worst crisis to hit President Ronald Reagan was the Iran-Contra scandal. When Reagan learned that his subordinates had traded arms for hostages, he went before the American people, admitted that it had happened, dismissed an aide for lying to Congress and took responsibility for the misdeeds of his staff.

Reagan left office the most popular President in modern history.

As Churchill led Britain through countless setbacks in the war against Nazi Germany, he was always candid about the pain and sacrifices required to vanquish Hitler’s Army.

There are lessons in history for dealing with a crisis in politics.

  1. Tell the truth. Even when speaking truth is hard.
  2. Offer candor about what it will take to fix the problem. Don’t minimize the remedy, even if it is painful and requires sacrifice.
  3. Offer specific and easily understood steps you are taking to remedy the situation.
  4. Find a way to offer empathy, hope and inspiration to those who are being inconvenienced.
  5. Own any mistake you’ve made. Take responsibility for correcting the shortcomings of those under your command.

It’s called leadership.

If you are caught in a buzz saw during a campaign because of something you said or once did, the same crisis rules apply. Admit it. Own it. Fix it. Voters recognize that candidates and elected officials are fallible human beings.

They will forgive mistakes. They are unforgiving of a pathological liar who won’t stop. 

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Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.

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