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Yesterday I was asked by a student in LinkedIn to suggest readings about crisis communications. Well, I could suggest several titles to start with but would that be all? I tried to think of other ways to show him how crisis management works. If the Chinese proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words” is correct, how about a two-hour film? The first film that came to my mind was the «Thank you for smoking» but that was too obvious and maybe a bit superficial. And then I thought of the film “All the President’s Men”, the 1976 American political thriller film directed by Alan J. Pakula which is based on the 1974 non-fiction book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two journalists investigating the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post.

This film is about one of the biggest scandals in American history showing how a big mistake could lead to a gigantic disaster. Although it is one of my favourite history subjects, I don’t want to elaborate further on the governance of Nixon administration during these years as there are more qualified people to offer their knowledge. However I would like to pinpoint some quotes of the film that could be a first-class crisis communications lesson.

Don’t irritate Media especially when you have skeletons in your cupboard

Quote from the film with reference to a statement of Nixon’s director of 1972 presidential campaign:

  • John Mitchell: [on phone] You tell your publisher, tell Katie Graham she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big wringer if that’s published.
  • Ben Bradlee: [later] He really said that about Mrs. Graham?
  • Carl Bernstein: [nods]
  • Ben Bradlee: Well, I’d cut the words “her tit” and print it.
  • Carl Bernstein: Why?
  • Ben Bradlee: This is a family newspaper.

Keep calm and respond to media inquiries with tranquility

Quote from the film with the dialogue between Washington Post’s report Bob Woodward and the former CIA officer and one of the Nixon White House “plumbers”, Howard Hunt:

  • Woodward: [on the phone] Hello, I’m Bob Woodward of the Washington   Post
  • Howard Hunt: Howard Hunt here.
  • Woodward: Hi, I’m Bob Woodward of the Post and–
  • Howard Hunt: Yes, yes, what is it?
  • Woodward: I was just kind of wondering why your name and phone number were in the address books of two of the men arrested at Watergate?
  • Woodward: (blind panic) Good God!  [And he bangs the phone down sharply]

Inexperienced and untrained people in an organization might ruin any crisis management plan

Quote from the film with the dialogue between Washington Post’s report Carl Bernstein and a librarian from the Library of Congress:

  • Librarian: Library.
  • Bernstein: Hi. Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. I was just wondering if you remember the names of any of the books that Howard Hunt checked out on Senator Kennedy.
  • Librarian: I think I do remember, he took out a whole bunch of material. Let me just go see. [sound of the phone being laid down]
  • …..
  • Librarian: Mr. Bernstein?
  • Bernstein: Yes, ma’am.
  • Librarian: What I said before? I was wrong. The truth is, I don’t have a card that Hunt took out any Kennedy material.  I remember getting that material out for somebody, but it wasn’t Mr. Hunt. The truth is, I’ve never had any requests at all from Mr. Hunt. The truth is, I don’t know Mr. Hunt.

Don’t get caught unprepared (literally sleeping)

Quote from the film with the dialogue between Washington Post’s report Carl Bernstein and Nixon’s director of 1972 presidential campaign, John Mitchell:

  • John Mitchell: Yes?
  • Bernstein: Sir, this is Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, and I’m sorry to bother you but we’re running a story in tomorrow’s paper that we thought you should have a chance to comment on.
  • John Mitchell: What does it say?
  • Bernstein: [starting to read]  John N. Mitchell, while serving as US Attorney General, personally controlled a secret cash fund that–
  • John Mitchell: Jeeeeeeesus
  • Bernstein: –fund that was used to gather information against the Democrats–
  • John Mitchell: Jeeeeeeesus
  • Bernstein:  –according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation. Beginning in the spring of 1971–
  • John Mitchell: Jeeeeeeesus
  • Bernstein: –almost a year before he left the  Justice Department–
  • John Mitchell: Jeeeeeeesus
  • Bernstein:  –to become President Nixon’s campaign manager on March 1, Mitchell personally approved withdrawals from the fund–
  • John Mitchell: –all that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. You tell your publisher–tell Katie  Graham she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I ever heard.
  • Bernstein: Sir, I’d like to ask you a few—
  • John Mitchell: –what time is it?
  • Bernstein: 11:30.
  • John Mitchell: Morning or night?
  • Bernstein:
  • John Mitchell: Oh. [And he hangs up]

 Any other suggestion about a film that we could use as a crisis communications lesson is more than welcome.