Tricks of the Trade

by Jeremy Alford

A heavyweight media consultant analyzes U.S. Sen. David Vitter's confession and subsequent week of silence.

It's an old rule of media management: Own up to a crisis fast. But the tried and true technique doesn't always apply to self-inflicted cases, especially when they involve an ultra-conservative U.S. senator and prostitutes in two different states.

After Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt contacted U.S. Sen. David Vitter last Monday to let him know he'd found his phone number on the old records of infamous D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Vitter quickly contacted key Louisiana publications and news bureaus through a written statement.

"He had hoped it would be the end of the matter, and it was not," The Times-Picayune's Bill Walsh told National Public Radio.

The pre-emptive, unannounced counterstrike was classic Vitter, who has shown a strong independent streak during his life in public office. As a member of the state Legislature, he held press conferences on the Capitol steps on key legislation without alerting other lawmakers. As a congressman, he would enter other congressional districts absent even a courtesy call. And as a U.S. senator, he stood recently against President Bush on an immigration proposal and is constantly at odds with senior Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat.

Calls made to Vitter's press secretary Joel DiGrado were not returned by press time. The only input from Vitter's camp came in a note above Vitter's official statement: "He respectfully requests that the statement be used in full without editing or paraphrasing."

Merrie Spaeth, chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, an award-winning business consulting firm that specializes partly in crisis management, says Vitter made a critical error in judgment by issuing a straightforward press release. A press conference would have been more personal, she says, but Vitter doesn't have the charm to pull it off. Spaeth, a Republican, contends that Vitter should have confessed to local television stations in timed, individual interviews under rigid protocol. Vitter also could have withheld his initial statement, waiting for the story to break as he prepared a more in-depth defense.

Given Vitter's policy stances, it may not have mattered at all. "Traditionally, you want to get out in front of bad news, but this is the difference between a tanker run aground by accident and a self-inflicted wound," she says. "He's made family values an issue in his campaigns, and now he can't live up to that. Besides renting a time machine, there's not much more he can do."

Spaeth says the last line of Vitter's statement ' "But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way" ' could bother voters, as it doesn't close the subject and offers no personal appeal. "As printed, it's to anybody and says I'm sorry I got caught," she says. "It doesn't ring true. Sometimes outright apologies are worse because they don't seem truthful."

There's also a timeline issue in a few of the sentences, she adds, which likely made critics and the press grow even hungrier. "This was a very serious sin in my pastâ?¦ Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wifeâ?¦," Vitter wrote. Spaeth says the last line opens Vitter up to more scrutiny. "It's not clear to me here that he stopped all of this since his initial confession to his wife and family," Spaeth says. "The strategic issue here is whether they should have come out with this and announced it a long time ago. Again, it appears as if he is coming clean only because he was caught."

Vitter's decision to go underground for the better part of last week only made matters worse. With that move, he failed to fulfill his role as a representative of the voters and missed votes in Washington, D.C. "He could resurrect himself, though, since he has a few years before he faces voters," she says. "But if there's even more released and it looks like a pattern, I don't know. He's going to have to find a way to sell this, and he doesn't have the talent of a Bill Clinton. He has a tough road ahead. This is going to be communications way beyond media."