We are in a time of changing norms, and leaders of all types should consider what that means for them and their careers.

In recent years, revelations of unsavory past behavior have swept away the jobs and reputations of leaders in technology, entertainment, the news media, politics and government.

Actions and remarks that were easily overlooked decades ago can today look insensitive and highly offensive. They can make an executive or other leader appear so out of step with clients, customers, employees, colleagues and/or voters that their continued leadership becomes impossible.

Careful communications planning can help executives and other leaders survive such disclosures.

Today, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is on a “Reconciliation Tour” through his state, as he attempts to convince citizens that he is fit to lead after a racist photo surfaced on his 1984 medical school yearbook pages. The photo depicted two costumed men — one in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK robe.

Northam offered shifting explanations of the photo, at first saying he was one of those costumed men, but refusing to say which one. He made what appeared to be a heartfelt apology, but the following day changed his story. He denied being in the photo and could not explain how it appeared on his page, even though a yearbook editor from that time said students provided the photos for their own pages. The governor said he never looked at his yearbook and didn’t even know what photos were in it.

He did admit that he once blackened his face with shoe polish to compete as Michael Jackson in a  dance contest. His revelation amplified the impression Northam was, at best, clueless about the history of blackface and why it is so offensive to African-Americans.

Virginians were still absorbing the shock of such behavior by their well-liked governor when accusations of sexual assault surfaced against another popular state leader, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. And then Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he, too, had appeared in blackface as a student in 1980. He and some friends were imitating rap singers they listened to.

Fairfax has vehemently denied accusations from 2000 and 2004 by two women. Criminal behavior is largely beyond the help of crisis communications, but at this time no criminal charges have resulted although Virginia lawmakers may open an inquiry.

Herring revealed his offending photo before it could be brought forward by an opponent. He  started with a private meeting with black lawmakers, who reportedly were stunned and disturbed by the revelation. He has stayed out of the public eye for nearly a month.

It is unclear how these embattled leaders will fare, but one thing is clear. Careful crisis communications planning has never been more important for organizations and their leaders. Things you have done, written or said in the past may be career-threatening when viewed in the light of current standards.

Leaders from all walks of life should take a lesson from politicians who, when preparing for a run for office, conduct opposition research on themselves. That way they can be prepared to answer for anything negative that might come up.

No one can change the past. We all have done or said things we regret. But with careful communications planning, you can exercise some control over how those things are revealed and the narrative that develops as a result. How well you prepare can help determine the future of your career and your success in a new era.

Look for an upcoming blog, when I’ll offer some more specific crisis communications advice.


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