Public figures act as if anything less than a win puts them at a disadvantage
I am sometimes overwhelmed from observing public figures becoming embroiled in matters and making statements which with – hindsight, should have been left unsaid or – at best should only have been uttered by subordinates. Although I firmly believe that it is best to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and prove it true, I myself have been guilty of a faux pas or two; but then again, I am not a public figure.
What I am saying is that public figures sometimes need to interpose themselves less in contentious areas of public discourse if there is a possibility that their pronouncements will not lead to healing but fan the flames of divisions.
Nowadays what seems to be the dominant feature in the communication process is the application of (what I term) the “survival” concept called “plausible deniability” (PD) where – invariably there is an almost insatiable desire to be in a win-win position.
In this situation public figures tend to act as if anything less than a win puts them at a disadvantage to the detriment of those who would support them and justifiably anticipate benefits through astute representation.
The working definition of PD is a method or scheme to allow an authority to deny, in a plausible fashion, responsibility for illegal or discreditable acts performed by subordinates.
In the PD mode people say and do things which can be easily denied and that denial will be taken as the truth by most people who do not have the intellect to realize that the denial is a lie.
However, it should not be thought that PD absolves anyone from responsibility since all it does is highlight a patent lack of accountability.
Change Factory’s Accountability and the art of plausible deniability argues that PD is a private and public sector issue “because it leaves open the door to abuse of authority and resources, shifting blame and deflecting accountability.”
Among the techniques used in PD are (i) offering a plausible argument while setting up a defensive shield to deny any request or query (“I cannot be expected to recall all correspondence meeting my office”); (ii) attacking the credibility of the questioner rather than addressing the substantive issue; (iii) omission of information (what is not said rather than what is said); and (iv) use of a word (or words) to give subtle changes in meaning thus enabling equivocation at a later stage (“We discussed concessions but I cannot recall the exact terms and conditions”).
One of the more familiar approaches by senior officials in both sectors is where you are required to communicate with subordinates so they can plausibly deny knowledge of the conversation or be able to say that the subordinate misrepresented their position. Among the names which have been linked to PD in one or more of its forms are: Rupert Murdoch; Karl Rove; Bill Clinton.
The argument has been used that PD is intended to insulate the leader from direct knowledge of skullduggery or some unsavoury plot, since it is not unknown for the boss to be conveniently absent when henchmen hatched plots and introduced the devil to the details; case in point the Bob Ehrlich/ Julius Henson role in the Democratic voters’ suppression scandal.
Serious consequences are likely to arise including loss of legitimacy, effectiveness, popularity, resources, and political stability when public figures avoid accountability and rely heavily on PD.
Those who duck accountability and are willing to sacrifice the longer term benefits of the greater number for the immediate short term gains of a few, stand to lose the trust of the very people that they need to follow them because while plausible deniability works some of the time, it won’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Patrick E. Mentore