When the shuttle buses hit the fan

Posted by Albers Communications on January 21, 2011 | Comments (4)

The controversies surrounding the Jan. 25 recall election of Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle are starting to play out like an Aaron Sorkin drama.

And the latest, which involves a group of Suttle supporters busing homeless people to the Douglas County Election Commission for early voting – and in some cases paying the same people $5 to train to get out the vote on Election Day – has become the cliffhanger. How will this scandal impact Mayor Suttle’s chances? No one knows for sure.

While it’s perfectly legal to shuttle people to voting sites, and to pay them to canvas for votes, combining the two in one event reads as shady politics. And in this case, as Suttle’s fellow politician Jim Esch has noted, perception is reality.

From a damage control perspective, the mayor took the right steps to get in front of the problem immediately. Within hours of the news breaking, he issued a statement denouncing the incident as a mistake and assuring his constituents that it would not be repeated. And late last week when I saw one of his supporters (City Councilman Ben Gray) speak, it was obvious that a key message point was to emphasize that Mayor Suttle had responded to this situation swiftly.

Unfortunately for the mayor, this was after Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine asked the Nebraska State Patrol to investigate allegations of voter fraud and after the media got hold of the story.

Sometimes even quick and contrite action won’t help you spin out of a public blunder. Certainly the mayor was advised that a public apology was the correct response – after the fact. But someone should have rung the alarm bells long before that.

In a society that demands transparency, politicians and businesspeople can expect to have their every action scrutinized, and should behave accordingly. Every public figure or organization should have at least one advisor who is PR-savvy, and who lives by Murphy’s Law. But when what can go wrong does go wrong, here are some necessary steps to stem the fallout.

Act Immediately: Once the story breaks, silence on your part will only make things worse. It is important to address an issue the moment it arises. This seems obvious, yet somehow public figures still constantly commit the sin of “too little, too late.” I give Mayor Suttle kudos for not letting the issue simmer; however, the entire episode reinforces the growing perception that he is out of touch with the people he serves.

Acknowledge and Apologize: Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” is famous because it was the exact wrong thing to say at that moment, when the court of public opinion had already decided otherwise. Had he apologized, he probably would have still resigned, but it may not have taken so long for him to recover his dignity. Even if Mayor Suttle loses the recall election, his prompt response to the public outcry over this incident may well have kept it from becoming a permanent blight on his future.

Make Amends: Two positives don’t make a negative disappear, but stockpiling good deeds leads to good will. Mayor Suttle’s promise that he won’t let such a thing happen again is a step in the right direction, but generating positive press as he moves forward will be crucial.

Of course, the best way to keep bad press at bay is to consider each and every action, and how it may be perceived by the public. But, when the shuttle buses hit the fan, what you do next can make or break your future.




  • Glaucia Steckelberg says:

    Excellent article! Transporting voters and paying for recruiters only show Suttle’s desperation and say little about his current PR advisors, who may have helped the mayor react well AFTER the milk had already spilled, but also allowed him to take the sketchy measures that actually led to the whole fiasco.
    Needless to say, had he been an Albers’ client, this would have never happened in the first place… 🙂

  • Tom Albers says:

    Thanks Glaucia! I appreciate your confidence in us.

  • Elaine Allen says:

    I appreciated your perspective, Tom. From the moment the story hit the news media, I knew it was going to be a disaster. Even though I was strongly against the recall from the beginning, this PR fiasco has left me questioning Suttle’s ability to lead the city effectively if he can’t even manage his campaign strategy.

  • Larry Bradley says:

    Great article, Tom. There will always be people who will be your detractors. On the one hand, you cannot live in fear of what they say. On the other, you cannot wittingly give them bulletin board material to use with those who are neutral to turn the neutrals against you. Finding the potential vulnerability in an idea or course of action is called red-teaming in the military. Unfortunately, even there the Abilence Paradox can keep people from speaking up.

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