Yesterday, the Attorney General of New York held a press conference to announce the release of a report that found that Governor Andrew Cuomo had sexually harassed current and former staffers of his administration, in addition to women who did not work for him, including a state trooper and a doctor who conducted his COVID test. By doing so, AG Letitia James said Cuomo had “violated federal and state law.” The announcement was the result of a thorough investigation which relied on thousands of documents, 179 interviews, and 11 women coming forward with “substantiated and corroborated” accounts of sexual harassment from the governor. President Biden and many other politicians have since called for Cuomo to resign.
Cuomo released a bizarre collection of materials in response to the AG’s findings: a 14-minute Twitter broadcast, which included a montage of the governor kissing people of different genders and ethnicities, and an 85-page defense which included pictures of assorted public officials hugging and kissing each other, only sometimes featuring Cuomo.
The horror of the sexual harassment allegations should not be overshadowed by the head-scratching tactics of Cuomo’s response. But his tact, according to PR experts, is informative in its ineptitude, poor execution, and lack of empathy.
“There's two cardinal rules to follow in any crisis communications event,” said Dave Oates, a crisis PR specialist and founder of Public Relations Security. “You always show empathy and action in your responses.”
According to Oates, “Governor Cuomo failed in every aspect of his response.”
In one specific example, Cuomo addressed the allegations of Charlotte Bennett, a former staffer who detailed multiple instances of Cuomo probing her about her own sexual assault, and making other inappropriate comments. In his broadcast, Cuomo attempted to explain his behavior as an attempt to connect, rather than sexual harassment.
He essentially signaled, “I'm sorry that I tried to help you too much,” Oates said.
He described this tact as not empathetic, but “victim shaming,” which goes against another cardinal PR rule. “You never disparage the victim,” Oates said, even if you aren’t acknowledging the veracity of their claims, “because it does not give the proper optics and detracts from your ability to create a meaningful argument that you've done nothing wrong.” Oates noted a preponderance of evidence that does give Cuomo any benefit of the doubt.
“I'm surprised he's still in office,” Oates said. “Let's say he's able to stay in office, and he's able to beat the civil cases or settle. He still doesn't get out of this. He now has the permanent reputation of being a harasser, a bully, and a person who takes advantage of others.”
Any goodwill earned from Cuomo’s response and poise during his daily COVID briefings in the middle of the pandemic last year, Oates said, is erased.
“It's shattered. It's irrelevant now. And his crisis communication tactics are only cementing that.”
Oates called Cuomo’s response “one of the biggest, colossal communications missteps,” which “could be used as a case study, not just for government, and politics, but organizations,” as what not to do when responding to any large crisis.
“None of the 14 minutes of conversation had the basic fundamental principles that need to be applied in every crisis PR situation.”
Ed Zitron, CEO of EZPR, a tech and media PR firm, was also shocked by Cuomo’s response.
“The kissing montage—in my life, including Donald Trump's presidency—I don't think I've ever seen anything quite that bizarre.”
The lengthy, meandering, and hand-waving distraction of his response, he said, just makes Cuomo look more guilty.
“If there was a substantive rebuff to any of these accusations, he would have made it, instead of this mealy-mouthed, extremely long and confusing diatribe,” which Zitron described as deeply offensive to the victims Cuomo was ostensibly addressing.
“This video stinks of someone saying, 'Yeah, I got the best idea. Everyone sit down! I'm gonna lay this out for you. So it's gonna be 14 minutes long. And there's gonna be a bit with me kissing lots of people, to show how normal I am.' It’s just deranged when you say it out loud.”
Zitron advises against making sense of Cuomo’s response as some type of 3D-chess maneuver. “This is exactly what it looks like: a confused and desperate man doing something with a staff that is somehow still behind him.”
Crisis PR expert Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a PR and crisis communications firm, wrote a piece in The Hill asking if Cuomo could survive a “double crisis,” last March. The piece referred to Cuomo’s alleged pandemic cover-up of nursing home deaths as well as his own sexual assault allegations. When he published the piece, Nierman appeared uncertain, but his outlook has since darkened. He did have a few positive remarks on Cuomo’s response, given from a “clinical PR perspective.”
“He rejected the allegations, accepted responsibility, and claimed he’d made changes,” he said. Still, Nierman’s take was overwhelmingly negative.
Nierman told VICE the initial allegations against Cuomo were so memorable because the first allegations of sexual harassment came with a photograph of the governor “literally manhandling a woman who appeared deeply uncomfortable.”
“If the goal was to portray him as a ‘serial hugger’ for whom physical contact with others is normal and expected, then I think that they were successful,” Nierman said. The “hug-of-fame” montage of other politicians, as Nierman called it, was “ridiculous,” and he believes that “most people who have heard detailed allegations against him will view it as a PR ploy.”
Proof that you’ve kissed someone before, after all, doesn’t prove anything, nor does a photo of Barack Obama smooching Nancy Pelosi (included on page 44 of Cuomo’s official 85-page response.) “Most people see a big difference between appropriate displays of affection versus unwanted sexual advances and creepy, sexually-charged comments made by a powerful executive to his subordinates.”
Elements of Cuomo’s response “fell flat” and “simply did not seem believable, including an attempt to frame discussions with his employee about her dating life as some sort of bungled attempt to help her through her past sexual trauma.”
When Cuomo decried a double standard against female managers in his screed, Nierman described it as “cynical and ironic.”
“When an in-depth investigation concludes that you have created a toxic work environment and demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate sexual harassment, then you can’t credibly position yourself as a crusader for women’s rights and fair treatment in the workplace.”