City Life: There's honesty and P.R. honesty

Most public relations specialists will tell you that when a public figure is faced with the possibility of damaging information becoming public, the smart thing to do is break the news yourself.

It's a process known as "getting in front of the story."

By revealing the news first, the subject usually is able to deflect more of the potential criticism and appear honorable. Former USC football player Reggie Bush, for example, returned his Heisman Trophy before it was taken away from him.

When someone else breaks the story, the common public relations response is called "deny and defend." Often, deny and defend involves attacking the credibility or the motive of the person or entity that broke the news.

Meg Whitman recently employed this strategy regarding her former housekeeper's immigration status.

Locally, there is Phu Nguyen, who is facing Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor in the 68th Assembly District race.

According to a story last week in the Daily Pilot, Nguyen "may not have lived in the district he seeks to represent at the time he registered to vote, when he submitted his nomination papers, and when he voted there during the primary election..."

But instead of taking the high road by welcoming the investigation to help put the issue to rest and allow the candidates to focus on the issues, Nguyen used deny and defend.

"The neighbors are wrong," he told the Pilot. "They've seen me. They've seen my family."

The neighbors and voter registration records reviewed by the newspaper may be wrong, or they may be right, but I would have liked to have seen a more statesman-like approach.

Let's be clear on the difference between the deny and defend of Whitman and Nguyen. The reactions of both candidates were neither surprising or disappointing. In Whitman's case, she has been advised for years by public relations experts who typically know only one way to handle bad news: deny and defend.

Nguyen is something of a political novice, not used to having the type of scrutiny he is getting. Nguyen has an impressive record of personal and professional achievements that show growth and maturity. That he responded with deny and defend is less an insight into his character than a deer-in-headlights moment to which he poorly responded.

All candidates need to pay more attention to the voter unrest rippling across the country. Voters are beyond angry and no longer willing to settle for the status quo. Many more of them today feel cheated at worst and deceived at best.

They see themselves or their friends out of work while Lehman Bros., one of the Wall Street financial entities responsible for the housing meltdown, is still in business after declaring bankruptcy over two years ago. They see the rich and well-connected playing by a separate set of rules.

Worst of all, they do not see either major political party able to solve the nation's problems.

There will not be a revolution at the polls this November. What you will see instead is a major expression of frustration expressed as baby steps toward the evolution of a new candidate, not a saint, but one who expresses honesty — not P.R. honesty, but honesty that is part of the candidate's DNA, a candidate who favors disclosure and decency over deny and defend.

It may take a while for the political machinery to understand the concept.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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