For Murkowski, a crisis of her own making

Memorial Day, 2017: Gov. Bill Walker, left, Sec. Ryan Zinke, and Lisa Murkowski join veterans in recognizing the sacrifices of fallen soldiers at a ceremony in Denali State Park.

Josh Walton, the executive director of the Alaska Republican Party, picked up the phone one more time today, for what seemed like the hundredth time.

His phone had been buzzing constantly for two days, with people complaining about Sen. Lisa Murkowski: They can’t get through to her office, her phone is not taking messages because the message box is full. And mostly, they are upset.

Walton’s phone is where calls to the Alaska Republican Party get forwarded, and the calls were running 100 percent madder-than-a-wet-hen.

But this call was different: The caller was a Colorado doctor who was not only “done with Murkowski,” but ready to put his money where his mouth is. He said he would put up $2 million to help defeat Murkowski in the next primary, which is five years from now. It sounded like he meant it.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock has been answering a lot of phone calls, too. He’s done interviews with Politico and NPR, and tells Must Read Alaska he’s trying to stay focused on his message: He hopes Murkowski will come around and be a team player, and work productively to repeal Obamacare. That is non-negotiable as far as the party is concerned, he said. He doesn’t want to undermine Alaska’s team in Washington, but he hopes Murkowski comes around.

Clearly, Murkowski has struck a nerve with conservatives, and not a good one. While liberals have praised her for her stance this week to vote against moving forward on a debate on different Obamacare repeal and replace plans, conservatives have gone just short of ballistic. They feel betrayed.

BUNKER MENTALITY SETS IN

“The savviest chief executive in the world often falls victim to a kind of paralysis when a crisis strikes,” wrote Steven Fink, author of Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable.

Alaska’s senior senator fell into “a kind of paralysis” this week when her dislike of President Trump overrode her strategic acumen.

She decided to defend her vote against the “motion to proceed” because of  “process” — the arcane process of the U.S. Senate. From words like “cloture” to phrases like “motion to proceed,” Americans don’t follow the process. They follow the results.

And her Alaskan constituents especially are, by nature, anti-process. Wally Hickel, for example, was not about “process.” Sen. Ted Stevens would not have fallen on a “process” sword.

Her vote against the motion to proceed was a principled decision, she argued, because she wanted health care reform to be handled first in committee — a committee of which she is a member. Murkowski was unable to see the forest for the trees. Critics quickly pointed out that she had offered no bill herself, nor called for committee hearings.

This evening in Washington, senators worked late on what’s being called a “skinny repeal,” which would get rid of the individual mandate that makes everyone buy insurance. Murkowski is present and accounted for, and she has even said a few words on the record about wanting to repeal Obamacare, but her conservative constituents in Alaska have felt deeply offended by her actions and words.

Murkowski is a legislative veteran, and a veteran communicator. She is knowledgeable about the workings of the Senate, and she’s a subject expert on every aspect of Alaska. But even experts need an intervention, now and then.

SIX PRINCIPLES OF CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS

Hence, here are six principles of crisis communications that are part of a “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication” course given to communicators at the Centers for Disease Control — you know, people who have to respond whenever there is an outbreak of anything related to the public health, such as as disease.

The author of this website took the course several years ago, and considers it the gold standard for crisis communications. It’s simple:

  1. Be first. The first source of communication often becomes the source against which all others are measured.
  2. Be right. Accuracy is critical to credibility.
  3. Be credible. Honesty is fundamental to maintaining trust.
  4. Express empathy. Emotion cannot be countered with facts. People must first know that their leaders care.
  5. Promote action. Giving people something specific to do restores a sense of control over out-of-control circumstances.
  6. Show respect. Lack of respect for a public in crisis undermines trust.

HOW DID LISA DO?

Politics is not public health, but the crisis communication principles are the same in both instances. A review of how Murkowski has performed:

1. Be first. Although Murkowski signaled early what her intentions were, she didn’t have a message ready when she cast her “no” vote. She didn’t have alternate legislation or a good explanation. She didn’t appear ready to handle the repercussions, so others became “first” in analyzing what she was doing, and she has had to play defense ever since.

2. Be right. Murkowski was right — the process has been less than perfect. And yet there’s a way people can be right and completely wrong at the same time. It can be right to vote against a bill, but is it right for Sen. Murkowski to vote against her own party leaders even on procedural votes?

3. Be credible. Murkowski failed the giggle test when she said she opposed the motion to proceed because she wanted to do a different process. She had not offered her own legislation or called for committee hearings in the Health committee, where she is a member. When asked by reporters about her phone call from Interior Secretary Zinke, she dodged just a little too much.

4 Express empathy. Murkowski didn’t communicate empathy. She didn’t show heart for the thousands of Alaskans burdened by high payments to insurance companies, but instead used “procedure” as her defense. Alaskans who are paying $1,200 a month for a bronze plan have been procedured to the poorhouse. They want Obamacare repealed.

5.  Promote action. Murkowski didn’t send out a poll or communication to her constituents, although she has many avenues to do so in this day and age. She didn’t show leadership and call her fellow Republicans to action. Instead, she seemed to isolate herself from her team. Her phone lines are jammed and communications coming from her office have had a “head stuck in sand” quality.

6. Show respect. Murkowski got her back up with President Trump. He is the president who won Alaska overwhelmingly, and yet she has struggled to support him even on important policy issues that a wide spectrum of center-right Alaskans support. As has been pointed out elsewhere, she seems to dislike him, and it shows.

She also failed to show respect to the tens of thousands of Alaskans who gave her the benefit of the doubt in her last two elections and voted for her in the belief that she would be a reliable, team-playing  Republican, not a Democrat in Republican garb.

Tom Boutin, a Juneau Republican who has worked on Murkowski’s campaign, put it this way: “She spent what wasn’t hers to spend. It was all of ours — you name it, the road to King Cove, ANWR, oil and gas — she spent the good will our state had brought to bear with our vote for Trump.”

Donald Trump won Alaska 51.3 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 37 percent. By any other name, a landslide.

A CALL FROM THE LANDLORD

When Sec. of Interior called Murkowski this week, it was a call from the guy who controls not only 60 percent of Alaska, but the state’s hopes for a way out of a long recession, which has cost tens of thousands of jobs so far.

Murkowski had kicked sand in the face of the Trump Administration, and that call from Sec. Ryan Zinke was a signal that she should expect to pay a political price for her confrontational political move against Trump.

We don’t know what was said in that call, and the only other person besides Zinke who knows the content of that conversation is not saying.

WHAT NOW?

It’s not too late for Murkowski. She can start to rebuild her tarnished trust with conservatives by hearing them through the din of the “resist” protestors who are yelling outside her office. She can stop yielding to left-wing pressure groups who have been saturating Alaska’s airwaves with their “keep Obamacare” messages.

Conservatives, for their part, must make themselves heard, yet they cannot savage her at every turn and think she will respond favorably. But if lawmakers only hear from one side, they’ll begin to believe that one side represents the whole.

Sen. Murkowski seems to be making that error of listening mainly to one side.  This is further compounded by an emotional dislike for our president that appears to be influencing her judgment on important policy issues, to the detriment of her home state.

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