Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control

Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control

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by Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, Bill Guttentag

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The foolproof guide to damage control from the "masters of disaster"

Whether you're a politician caught with his pants down, a publicly traded company accused of accounting improprieties, a family-owned restaurant with a lousy Yelp review or just the guy in the corner cubicle who inadvertently pushed "reply all," a crisis doesn't have to be the make-or-break

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The foolproof guide to damage control from the "masters of disaster"

Whether you're a politician caught with his pants down, a publicly traded company accused of accounting improprieties, a family-owned restaurant with a lousy Yelp review or just the guy in the corner cubicle who inadvertently pushed "reply all," a crisis doesn't have to be the make-or-break moment of your career. For those of us that aren't natural spin doctors, it's hard to resist the impulse to cover your tracks, lie, or act like nothing happened. But resist you must!
In Masters of Disaster, Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani, reveal the magic formula you need to take control when it's your turn to be sucked into the vortex of the modern spin cycle. Covering the ten commandments of damage control, and based on their work for clients like Bill Clinton, Goldman Sachs and Hollywood studios, the authors outline the strategies that can make real time news alerts, Twitter trend lines and viral videos work for you rather against you. Full of both lively personal anecdotes and hard-knuckled straight talk, this is a must-read for anyone who wants to emerge with their reputation intact.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This timely survey of recent PR crises (which even draws on the July 2012 Louis Freeh report on Penn State) will likely stand as the go-to manual for the foreseeable future. Lehane and Fabiani are well positioned to distill the lessons of the baseball steroid scandal, Tiger Woods’s infidelities, and Anthony Weiner’s obscene tweets into clearly articulated principles of crisis responses (e.g., full disclosure; don’t feed the fire); they served on the “rapid-response” team for the Clinton White House. With filmmaker Guttentag, Lehane and Fabiani contrast thoughtful and effective responses with ineffective ones, noting, for example, how Eliot Spitzer quickly rehabilitated himself after resigning as New York’s governor for patronizing prostitutes, and how John Kerry’s presidential campaign made a fatal error in not moving promptly to rebut the Swift Boat campaign. The authors also make plain how much things have changed in the age of Twitter, where negative stories can spread electronically around the world in a microsecond, necessitating contingency plans that can get the responses out as soon as possible. Agent: Mel Berger, WME. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

Masters of Disaster is the perfect playbook for how to respond when you're under enemy fire…a vital and fun read full of back-room tales for those who want to learn from America's greatest corporate and political scandals.” —The Huffington Post

“A how-to brought to you by the guys who defended Clinton on impeachment.” —The National Journal

“The go-to manual...Lehane and Fabiani are well positioned to distill the lessons of the baseball steroid scandal, Tiger Woods's infidelities, and Anthony Weiner's obscene tweets into clearly articulated principles.” —starred review, Publishers Weekly

“If you are a public figure, or even a private citizen who might engender controversy, read this book and put its authors on your speed dial. These guys are truly the masters not only of avoiding or minimizing disaster, but of dealing with the kind of crises faced by ordinary people when they first encounter the media, the law or the blood sport we call politics.” —Alan M. Dershowitz, author of The Trials of Zion

“In a hostile climate where reputations and markets can be capriciously destroyed in seconds, the old chestnuts about crisis management don't apply. What's needed is perspective from the seasoned Masters of Disaster who understand that damage control is a temperamental art, not grade school science. A valuable addition to the modern crisis canon.” —Eric Dezenhall, CEO Dezenhall Resources, Ltd. and author of Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management

“Every board, every manager and now almost every individual now faces the possibility of being swept up in a firestorm of media and mangled message. Masters of Disaster provides both sound rules and great examples of both the positive and negative kind to guide us all through to the best possible outcomes. The only danger is that you won't read it in advance. I recommend it to all my board colleagues and CEO friends.” —Howard Stevenson, Sarofim Rock Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School

“Today crisis is common, and news of scandal, whether large or small, spreads rapidly. Through detailed case studies that focus on both those who have successfully overcome a crisis and those who have failed, Masters of Disaster offers essential insight into crisis management.” —Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitols and Washington Wizards

“Managing the world's most famous sports franchise is never dull, and there are times when I've turned to and found valuable tactics from this crisis management playbook.” —Jeanie Buss, president, Los Angeles Lakers

“Think if you are not in the public eye, this book does not apply to you? Think again. Disaster will happen to all of us, when we least expect it. And if you are in the public eye -- this is mandatory survival reading!” —Guerrino De Luca, CEO of Logitech

owner of the Washington Capitols and Washington Wi Ted Leonsis

Today crisis is common, and news of scandal, whether large or small, spreads rapidly. Through detailed case studies that focus on both those who have successfully overcome a crisis and those who have failed, Masters of Disaster offers essential insight into crisis management.

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Masters of Disaster

The Ten Commandments of Damage Control

By Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, Bill Guttentag

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, and Bill Guttentag
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-05031-1



IN OUR AGE, SCANDALS ARE LINED UP LIKE PLANES CIRCLING TO LAND AT NEW YORK'S La Guardia airport at rush hour, raising the question: Why is it that crisis is a state of nature in the Information Age? The reality is, to err is human — and that hasn't changed since Eve went for the apple and she and Adam were banished from the Garden of Eden.

Human behavior has not changed.

What has changed is that information is created, conveyed, and consumed in a completely different way than it was a generation ago — or even a decade ago. The five elements at work are: the vast proliferation of outlets communicating information, the light speed at which information moves, the erosion of trust in the quality of the information received, the capacity of individuals to selectively identify and leverage information, and the evolving communal nature of information.

Moreover, the way in which information is created, conveyed, and consumed in this day and age means that scandal does not distinguish between brand name or no name, national news or local gossip, a Fortune 500 company or a mom-and-pop shop — when it comes to scandal, there is a level playing field in how information moves, with perhaps the biggest difference being the resources the big boys can throw at a challenge while the little guys are left to fend for themselves.


On April 6, 2008, a little more than two weeks before Democratic primary voters were to go to the polls in Pennsylvania, Senator Barack Obama, who was locked in a bitter and protracted campaign against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, hustled into what was thought to be a "closed press" fundraiser at a private home in San Francisco's elegant Pacific Heights neighborhood.

The then senator stood before the well-heeled wine-and-latte crowd and tried to explain the resentment of some small-town American voters, who at this point in the campaign had not yet fully warmed to his candidacy. The senator observed of the people of rural Pennsylvania:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Unbeknownst to our future president, his campaign staff, donors, and the professional press corps cooling their heels outside of the event, in the crowd was Mayhill Fowler, a sixty-one-year-old "citizen journalist" from across the bay in Oakland, who was a progressive, had a ticket, and was recording the speech on a small digital recorder. Fowler posted the transcript online shortly thereafter — and within days created a major crisis for the Obama campaign. In fact, this incident served as one of those defining moments for Obama that has contributed to the narrative that he has been dealing with ever since: of being perceived by some as an elitist.

And as Obama had a hidden recording crisis, so too did his 2012 opponent, Governor Mitt Romney. At a private $50,000 per person fundrais-ing dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, Romney was secretly filmed saying that his campaign would not try to appeal to 47 percent of the American public who he said paid no income taxes and are "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them. ... And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." The comments hit like a bombshell, generated an enormous amount of attention from the public and media, and produced widespread criticism across the political spectrum. The statements played into an existing narrative that many voters already believed about the candidate, and given what had happened four years earlier to his opponent at another closed door event, this secretly recorded video was an enormous and unforced tactical error in his campaign.

The bottom line is that even in a time when news organizations face serious financial challenges, there are still hundreds of television channels available through cable or satellite; a vast number of print outlets, from national and local newspapers to trade magazines covering the most specialized of subjects; and countless online platforms, including websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds that have given everyone the tools to report news — all leading to the inescapable fact that there are no longer any real "closed press" events.

When coming up in politics, we were taught never to put anything in writing that you would not want to see on the front page of The New York Times. Well, today, you shouldn't say or do anything — anything — that you would not want to see boiled down to a 140-character tweet blasted for all the world to read.

In this era where anyone with a smartphone can break news, information can be just as easily communicated by professional reporters who have spent years perfecting their craft (and whose reporting is reviewed by multiple layers of editors) as by a citizen-journalist blogging from their back porch in their pajamas.

News still comes from conventional sources, such as a front-page New York Times investigative story by a prize-winning journalist exposing the depth of News Corporation's phone hacking in the United Kingdom. But it also comes from the ground up, as with George Allen, running for senator in Virginia, filmed at a campaign stop referring to an Indian American with the racist slur "macaca" — an event that helped doom his candidacy. Or it could be through the use of advanced technology, as was the case in the BP oil spill, when an underwater web camera documented the unending gush of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Or it could be Mayhill Fowler and her digital recorder.

Today, it truly does matter if a tree falls in a forest.

And the result is that in today's media landscape every event, every comment, every activity is virtually guaranteed to be reported — with great potential for negative consequences.


In 1992, the successful Clinton campaign was branded as cutting edge for the development and execution of the "War Room" — a room in Clinton's Little Rock campaign headquarters that was manned around the clock by caffeine-fueled twentysomethings who operated according to the new imperatives of rapid response: getting in front of the news, hitting back harder then you have been hit, and pre-butting the attack.

The Clinton campaign's fundamental insight was that there were at least three news cycles a day — morning, day, and night — and that a campaign could effectively shape the coverage of the evening news and morning papers by driving a story and a message through all these news cycles and beyond. No longer would information begin with the morning newspapers and end with the evening news.

In 1992, the Clinton campaign's War Room was considered so revolutionary that Hollywood even made a film of it. Today, the idea of just three news cycles a day would be akin to thinking that dial-up is the quickest way to surf online. We no longer have conventional news cycles but cycles within cycles within cycles, where platforms like Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and Facebook are akin to the small wheels of a clock that turn the bigger wheels.

Information moves at such a pace that the public makes decisions and takes actions before it is even known whether the information being disseminated is accurate — which on some level makes the ultimate accuracy irrelevant, as people have already acted on the perception. In 2008, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers suffered enormous consequences when information on the state of their finances sped around Wall Street at lightning speed, and the market moved on the information before they were able to effectively respond.

Just look at the velocity with which information moved throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Many commentators and Middle East specialists observed that the spread of ideas and the capacity to organize were a direct function of the so-called liberation technology of Facebook and Twitter. The news traveled so quickly that the traditional state security organs, which had so successfully repressed dissent in the past, were overwhelmed. And the world witnessed a fundamental change — in some of these situations a tweet proved to be more powerful than an AK-47.

Marshall McLuhan — the visionary media theorist who saw long before others where the world was heading due to the proliferation of mass media — coined the term "global village," which conveyed the notion that modern communications were going to lead to the replacement of individual cultures with a collective identity, as the world began to receive the same information from the same sources at the same time (supplanting local customs and localized information sources). Well, today, the way information moves is producing a type of global village on speed, with a collective identity that is constantly being bombarded with still more new information.

The result is that information now moves at a dizzying rate; as a consequence, news can go around the world numerous times before you even have a chance to take a breath and figure out what is going on, whether it is accurate, and what you should say to deal with the story at hand.

And thus, speed kills.


I'm not a crook. — President Richard Nixon, November 17, 1973

It is a crisis of confidence. — President Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979

Mistakes were made. — President Ronald Reagan, January 27, 1987

Mission Accomplished — Banner displayed during President George W. Bush's aircraft carrier address, May 1, 2003

If one used each of the above defining presidential moments as part of a connect-the-dots drawing for children, it would produce an illustration vividly documenting the erosion of trust in the institution of the presidency. And what has happened with the presidency has also occurred with nearly all of society's traditional institutions. Over the past fifty years, beginning with America losing its innocence over Vietnam and continuing through Watergate, there has been a steady and relentless breakdown of public trust in the nation's political leaders, business sector, churches, and press. The historic gatekeep-ers — the esteemed institutions to which society looked to be its arbiters ofdisputes — have lost their credibility and no longer hold sway over the public in the way they once did, when they were looked to as impartial umpires who would fairly and accurately call balls and strikes.

Moreover, as the United States was rocked by a series of major events that were covered in vastly different ways — whether it was the 2000 presidential election recount, 9/11, Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, or the 2008 financial meltdown — the nature of the coverage has been growing more skeptical, and the public's perception of the information they are receiving has become far more cynical.

Stan Greenberg, a leading Democratic pollster, has written about how voters today have grown "estranged from government," as the public increasingly distrusts the government's ability to deliver on its promises. Similarly, over the last twelve years the global public relations giant Edelman has tracked levels of trust across key sectors of society, including business and governments, in the United States and internationally. In its annual global survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer, the firm has documented stunningly low levels of trust across nearly all sectors.

What is especially problematic about the low levels of trust is that they come at a time when the public believes we are on the wrong track and wants some answers — but simply does not have faith in the ability of the traditional gatekeepers of society to solve these problems. And this only reinforces the skepticism of those reporting and spreading the news, such as the mainstream press or social media, and so the cynicism by which it is consumed by the broader public swells.

This cycle, of skeptics reporting skeptically to a cynical audience that consumes the information cynically, perpetuates itself — and deepens the skepticism and cynicism by creating an enormous feedback loop of distrust.

Speaking about U.S.-Soviet arms treaties, President Ronald Reagan used the Russian phrase doverai, no proverai — trust, but verify.

Nowadays, reporting — across the spectrum of how news is delivered — starts off without trust, and the public in turn seeks out information to confirm their distrust of our leaders and institutions. And the cycle repeats.


Let's go all the way back to the summer of 1995.

At the time, we were working at the White House and began to increasingly receive calls from mainstream media outlets asking us to respond to various bizarre items related to the late Vince Foster, a lawyer in the White House counsel's office who had tragically taken his own life in the summer of 1993. At first, we ignored the calls, as there was nothing to the story beyond the terrible loss of one of the president and first lady's friends. However, as the calls continued without letup, and the nature of the questions became even more bizarre — to the point where we were asked to comment on alleged eyewitness sightings of Foster — we knew we had to get to the heart of the matter and began asking the reporters the basis for their questions.

All roads led to a mysterious source — the newly exploding Internet.

One Saturday morning in the midst of an oppressively hot D.C. summer weekend, we found ourselves squirreled away in a stuffy room on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where there was a bank of computers from which you could access the "World Wide Web." Eight hours later, we emerged from our warren having seemingly been transported to a parallel universe. Online we found early versions of chat rooms, postings, and other information showing there was an entire cottage industry devoted to discussing conspiracy theories relating to the death of Vince Foster, including numerous online reports of people claiming to have seen him, followed by self-identified news sources that at the time most Americans had never heard of — conserva-tive outlets such as Eagle Publishing's Human Events or Richard Mellon Scaife's the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — to right-leaning outlets we were familiar with, such as the New York Post, The Washington Times, and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal — and from there to traditional news reports.

What we learned in those eight hours became the basis for a 332-page report we authored shortly thereafter that documented how various right-wing conspiracy theories against the Clintons moved from fringe Internet sites into conservative publications, and then journeyed from there into mainstream outlets. The document was created so that we could provide the information to reporters asking us about Foster and other related questions, journalists who at the time were even more ignorant of the World Wide Web than we were.

What the eight hours in the White House's computer room in 1995 tipped us off to was that the world was moving to a place where the public could use the power of technology to actively seek out information and leverage it — and they could selectively determine where they could go for their information.


Excerpted from Masters of Disaster by Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, Bill Guttentag. Copyright © 2012 Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, and Bill Guttentag. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Named a "Master of Disaster" by Newsweek and the "Master of the Political Dark Arts" by The New York Times, Christopher Lehane is a partner in the strategic communications firm Fabiani&Lehane, which provides high level counsel to corporate, entertainment, political and professional sports clients facing complex challenges typically involving some combination of the law, finance, government affairs and communications. His firm has represented the likes of Goldman Sachs, Lance Armstrong and Hollywood studios. Lehane, whose career began in Democratic politics and who continues to be active as a political consultant, served in various positions in the Clinton-Gore Administration during the 1990s, including Special Assistant Counsel to President Bill Clinton, Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore and Counselor to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo (now the Governor of New York). A Lecturer in Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Lehane is a regular commentator and speaker on the art of damage control. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1994 and from Amherst College in 1990 and lives in San Francisco, CA with his wife, Andrea, and two sons, Dominic and Quincy.

Bill Guttentag is a two-time Oscar-winning feature film and documentary writer-producer-director. His films include the dramatic features Live!, starring Eva Mendes and Andre Braugher, and Knife Fight starring Rob Lowe, Julie Bowen, and Carrie-Ann Moss. His documentary features include Nanking, which premiered at the Sundance Film and Festival and Soundtrack for a Revolution Soundtrack for a Revolution which had its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2003 he won an Oscar for the documentary Twin Towers. He has also has received a second Oscar, three additional Oscar nominations, a Peabody Award, three Emmy Awards, two Writers Guild Award nominations, and a Robert Kennedy Journalism Award. His films have been selected for the Sundance Film Festival three times, and have played and won awards at numerous American and international film festivals. They have also received a number of special screenings internationally and in the US, including at the White House.

He was an executive producer and creator of the non-fiction series Law&Order: Crime&Punishment which ran for three seasons on NBC. His first novel, Boulevard, was published by Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton in 2010. He was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and since 2001 he has been a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford.

Christopher Lehane has provided damage control for global Fortune 500 companies, prominent elected officials, and well-known celebrities. Previously, he worked for the Clinton White House as part of the “rapid-response” team employed to respond to the various investigations of the Clinton Administration. He is the co-author of Masters of Disaster. Boasting frequent media appearances for his expert commentary on the art of damage control, he is a lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School.
Mark Fabiani has provided damage control for global Fortune 500 companies, prominent elected officials, and well-known celebrities. Previously, he worked for the Clinton White House as part of the “rapid-response” team employed to respond to the various investigations of the Clinton Administration. He is the co-author of Masters of Disaster. Boasting frequent media appearances for his expert commentary on the art of damage control, he is a lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School.
Bill Guttentag is a two-time Oscar-winning documentary and feature film writer producer-director. His films include the dramatic features Knife Fight and Live!, and the documentaries Nanking and Soundtrack for Revolution. He lectures at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

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Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow!  As a founder of a nonprofit foundation, I didn’t think this book would apply to me.  Masters of Disaster has served as my survival guide. I found valuable useful tactics in managing many issues.  This book has something for everyone. 
Geoffrey_C More than 1 year ago
Awesome addition to my library, I am interested to learn more is there a follow up book coming out?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago