New York Assemblyman’s arrest provides case study in bad crisis management

Hypocritical politicians are like bulbs blooming in spring, or drones tracking terrorists, or conservative Catholics electing a doctrinaire pope: That’s what they do; it’s who they are.

When New York State Police charged Westchester County Republican Assemblyman Steve Katz with speeding on the Thruway and marijuana possession last week, it was notable because he’s a state officeholder. But it rose to crisis when media pounced on the fact that he’d voted last year against approving medical marijuana use.

[This event was even more delicious for Buffalo Bills fans. Last week — was the man high? — Katz criticized the state’s multi-million dollar investment in the NFL team, the only such team still operating in New York State, paying taxes to New York State and the last of three using a New York name but not creating jobs and economic opportunity in New Jersey.]

Going 80 in a 65 on the Thruway when he was late getting to Albany is no big deal. Facing charges that the trooper smelled pot smoke and found him to be in possession of a small bag of pot is.

But as my Albany-based EMA colleague Andrew Rush so clearly pointed out, Katz provided a perfect road map to how not to end a crisis. It’s extraordinary that an Assembly member in a town crawling with political criminals and people trained to guide them out of a crisis only compounded his personal crisis in his first public statement.

First mistake, only issuing a statement. Second mistake, reading it in person. Third mistake, not taking reporters’ questions. Fourth mistake, acting arrogant and guilty at the same time as he did read his statement.

Here’s the formula. If you only are going to issue a statement, then just send out a statement. Don’t show up and stand before reporters and read it. Why? Did you watch the video? Katz looks down almost the whole time, like the little boy facing the principal.

Next, he’s defiant, telling reporters what these charges should and should not mean. And then, defying and surely angering the assembled reporters, who are already loaded for bear, he walks away without answering their questions. He shows them no respect, and thereby disrespects his constituents.

If you’re going to limit your comment to a statement, send out a written one and keep yourself otherwise unavailable. If you’re going to go before the cameras, stand up and take questions.

As the newest member of Albany’s Rogues Gallery — former Gov. Eliot Spitzer still holds the king’s crown five years later — Katz’s alleged crimes wouldn’t get him in the top 25. But as someone who could have strengthened his status as a smart leader had he handled the crisis better, he’s right up there in stupidity quotient.

Stand up. Apologize to your family, friends and constituents. He’s already a non-entity in Albany as a Republican Assemblyman. He has less power than the trooper who caught him. He’s got nothing to lose.

But it’s not for Katz to say how he should be judged. The time for defiance is not your first statement. That’s the time for taking responsibility, apologizing  and answering questions. The maxim is a simple one. Until an errant newsmaker answers all the questions, reporters are duty-bound to keep asking them. The only way to make the reporters move on to someone else is to meet their needs.

Something like this:

Mr. Katz, were you driving 80 and smoking pot Thursday morning on your way to Albany?

Katz: I’d like to let due process run its course and when it does I will pay the fines or penalties due me if that’s what a judge says.

Mr. Katz, how do you reconcile smoking pot when you voted against it as an aid and pain-relief measure for New York’s sick and dying?

Katz: It appears hypocritical and unfair. I agree with you. It’s something I’m going to need to rethink.

And so on. Stand up and take the hit. Show qualities politicians endlessly claim to have gobs of and too few ever demonstrate: Accountability, transparency, honesty, humility, leadership.

Why? Because everyone but you, it seems, knows you probably did what the trooper charged.

A crisis can derail or destroy a career, but it can also elevate one, if it’s handled carefully and smartly. Based on Katz’s sorry performance so far, there’s nothing to indicate that the voters won’t return Katz to his veterinarian practice at their first opportunity.

Without knowing anything more about him, the only perception we’re left with about the man is that he’s a hypocritical and arrogant politician who thinks he’s the exception to all the rules he and his peers apply to the rest of us.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.



About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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