Did the White House Blow its Crisis Communications Plan?

Crisis communications at the White House

Setting off a crisis

This hasn’t been a fun couple of weeks for President Obama. Republicans and even members of his own party are gunning for him over the IRS, AP phone records and Benghazi debacles.

Starting with the IRS, several mid-level career IRS employees in the Cincinnati office targeted conservative sounding groups like the Tea Party for extra scrutiny when considering their applications for tax-exempt status.

Apparently, their instructions for screening these requests weren’t clear – at least that’s the IRS’s defense.

Doing a Better Job

Politics aside, the Administration could have done a better job handling the IRS debacle. Then there are the other still festering inquiries. For example, whether the staff and U.S. Ambassador who were killed in an assault on the embassy in Benghazi could have been rescued, and the Justice Department’s review of AP journalists’ phone records.

If the White House has a crisis communications plan in place they blew it.

Regarding the IRS scandal, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney sounded pretty lame when he claimed that insiders knew about it but didn’t think to inform the President.

That was mistake number one in handling the crisis. You’ve got to know you have one. The President’s inner circle of advisors should have recognized immediately that this information would get leaked to the press and it did. A red flag should have gone up when they discovered that the Tea Party was specifically targeted.

The President learned about the IRS misdeeds from media reports. Talk about being blind-sided. That’s akin to the CEO of a company turning on the TV and discovering that customers are getting deathly sick from one of his company’s products.

Crisis Communications Planning

If you’re in charge of communications for your company, don’t wait for a crisis – or multiple crises — to test your plan or think it will never happen here. Take these steps to avoid a crisis when something goes terribly wrong for your company.


  • Recognize a crisis when it comes. As the White House learned, it’s almost impossible to regain control of the controversy and misinformation once the media gets hold of the story.
  • Be alert for anything that could impact negatively on your business.
  • Develop a plan for your crisis team, establishing communication channels and assignment of duties. Make a list of all those who should be notified, especially the CEO.
  • Be sure your spokespersons are media trained to handle reporter inquiries.
  • Review the plan periodically. Select a crisis scenario and talk it through.


  • Contact key audiences quickly with accurate information about what has happened. Tell them what steps have been taken, and will be taken, to address the situation and how the incident may affect them.
  • Establish an emergency nerve center where the senior communications professional handles all media inquiries and distributes updated information to the company’s target audiences. Advise employees to refer all inquiries to people staffing this nerve center.
  • Keep employees informed of continuing developments.
  • Tell employees what they can do to help.


  • Reward/acknowledge heroes, those who went out of their way to resolve the crisis.
  • Investigate preventable causes and include results in best practices.
  • Take steps to restore trust with all key audiences.

Clearly, the Obama Administration will continue to be under fire for its handling of these ongoing crises. But that’s the nature of the office.

You could argue that the White House is always in crisis with the continuing violence in hot spots around the world and ongoing domestic issues like the environment and the economy.

This post is not about politics. It’s about how to manage communications during a crisis, whether it’s the White House or your own company.

How do you feel the White House has handled the current IRS, AP probe and Benghazi crises? Where did they go wrong? What could they have done better?

1 comment to Did the White House Blow its Crisis Communications Plan?

  • Well written for sure. They followed the dog instead of leading the dog. Big time screw up for sure. The White House is terribly confused with so much “stuff”..It happens..then will survive..Best regards..HLW

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