In Need of a Cover-Up

In attempting to hide a sex scandal, a Congressman nearly lost his shirt

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

It’s not always easy to recognize quality public relations work. But it’s usually pretty easy to identify a bad PR move.

Such was the case on December 10, 1974, when Congressman Wilbur Mills resigned from his position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. There’s a lot of power in that position, and Mills, an Arkansas Democrat, had held it for a long time, since 1958.

It was a wise move, but prompted by a series of bad moves. A couple of months earlier, at around 2 a.m. on October 7, a U.S. Park police officer had pulled over the 65-year-old Congressman.

This was a problem because, one, Mills had been driving without his headlights on; two, he was visibly intoxicated; and three, none of the people in his car was his wife.

Instead, one of his passengers was a lady named Annabelle Battistella. She was a stripper whose stage name was Fanne Fox. She also was 38 years old, meaning that Mills had been serving in Congress longer than she had been alive.

Oh, yes: Mills was bleeding from his nose, and Battistella had bruises on her face. And when the officer had approached them, Battistella tried to escape by leaving the car and jumping into the nearby Tidal Basin; perhaps she was hoping to swim outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

How Wills handled the situation is an interesting lesson in crisis management—or perhaps, non-management. Rather than comment directly, he assigned the job to an associate named Oscar Goss, who denied that Mills had been involved. But then the cops publicly confirmed that Mills was their man, and further confirmed that he had been intoxicated and bleeding at the time.

In response, Mills had Goss issue the time-honored statement of “No comment.” But the media queries and gossip were not about to stop. I mean, it was a drunk Congressman and a stripper; at the National Enquirer, they probably suspended all vacation requests.

So three days later, Mills issued another statement, confirming the allegations. But he didn’t quite come clean; as reported in the Washington Post:

“In a statement issued by his Capitol Hill office, Mills said his face was cut from his eyeglasses, which broke as he tried to stop an ill woman neighbor, Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, from leaving the vehicle.”

The statement explained that he had been at a party, and that he had left his wife at home at because she had a broken foot. The Post added, “Mills’ statement said nothing about drinking, and left unclear many other things about the incident and the other occupants of the car.”

Then Mills went into reverse-damage control, which is to say, he made the situation worse. He said Goss’ original denials occurred because he had misunderstood Mills.

When Goss had told him about the media coverage, he explained, “because of the manner in which it was phrased, I told him that it was an inaccurate report. He (Goss) mistook this to mean that I was not involved, resulting in the previous statement issued in my name.”

To buttress the strategy, Goss released his own statement, claiming it was “obvious” that he had misunderstood Mills, and adding that he deeply regretted “any embarrassment that it may have caused him and his family, and any inconvenience it has caused others.”

You would think that a scandal of this proportion, compounded by a ham-handed PR response, would end a politician’s career. You would be wrong. The next month, Mills was easily re-elected; exact numbers were not available, but some claimed his percentage of the vote was 36-26-36.

But Mills had one more faux pas up his sleeve. Just a couple of weeks after the election, he was reported to have gone to a club where Battistella was performing and jumped up on the stage. Remarkably, Fanne’s husband was with him, and he jumped on stage, too. Perhaps there was a special going that night, and everyone was getting half off (including Fanne).

Behind the mischief was a serious problem. After the stage incident, Mills resigned his chairmanship and checked himself into a rehab facility. And in 1976, he declined to seek re-election.

Mills ultimately redeemed himself, beating his addiction. He spent his remaining years helping raise funds for alcohol recovery services, and a treatment center in Arkansas was built in his honor. It’s also worth noting he was a driving force behind several important pieces of legislation, and he stayed married to his wife.

Sex dramas are nothing new to PR. But at the time, Mills’ scandal was pretty, well, scandalous. And it serves as another reminder of the important role we play. If you don’t have a good PR team helping you map your course, it’s all too easy to take a wrong turn—and find yourself driving in the dark.

Braking Bad

In 1966, a carmaker’s dubious PR strategy crashed and burned spectacularly

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

When companies are confronted with bad publicity, they must decide how to respond; one option they might avoid is to make the situation worse. But that’s what happened on Nov. 30, 1965, when the book, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile” was released.

The author was Ralph Nader, a 31-year-old lawyer. He had been interested in auto safety for several years (even if hardly anyone else was) and the book was a culmination of his research. And it did not pull any punches; the opening sentence reads, “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”

While Nader was critical of the industry as a whole, he took particular aim at one car, the Chevrolet Corvair. Nader maintained that the car’s faulty design put drivers at a greater risk of losing control of the vehicle and rolling it.

The day the book was published, the New York Times ran a modest article about it; the next day, they ran an article where auto industry execs refuted the allegations. But beyond that, the book got little, shall we say, traction. Nader’s work was in danger of being relegated to the junkyard of abandoned car books.

But General Motors, the parent company of Chevy, had an idea. Perhaps concerned about the potential consequences of Nader’s book, they launched a campaign to discredit him; I don’t recall this course being offered in my college’s PR curriculum, but we were not in one of the Power Conferences.

GM hired a team of private investigators to poke into Nader’s personal life. They allegedly followed him, made harassing phone calls, tapped his phone and, under false pretenses, questioned his friends. As the lead detective wrote (yes, wrote), the goal was to examine “his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs, in fact all facets of his life.” And for good measure, they had a couple of women try to seduce him. (They failed).

In February 1966, the Washington Post ran a story reporting Nader’s allegations. GM’s next PR step was equally curious; in March, they admitted they had indeed investigated Nader, but only as a “routine” matter—because you know, we’ve all been asked common background questions about our interest in boys.

Later in March came the real PR fiasco, when James Roche, GM’s CEO, appeared before a Senate committee. In that hearing, he denied some of the worst allegations. But he also formally apologized to Nader. And when asked to address GM’s original explanation of a “routine” investigation, Roche said it must have been caused by a miscommunication. Remember, when all else fails, blame the PR team.

The hearing was front-page news; it’s not every day that a corporate CEO publicly apologizes. And now Nader’s book was in the news, too: by June, it was on the best-seller list. And in September, President Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which required new safety standards, and created an agency to enforce them.

Nader would later receive $425,000 in compensation from GM; he went on to appear on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Esquire, with the latter publication suggesting he could be President, an idea which, at the time, probably appealed to Al Gore. Today, Nader is recognized as a leading consumer advocate, and safety features have become a prime selling point for virtually every car manufacturer except France’s Renault, whose slogan is reported to be, “It runs, okay?”

And we are left to ponder GM’s strategy: how else might they have responded? Is it ever okay to run a campaign to discredit a critic? And who is to blame for creating that hideous Pontiac Aztec?

These are complex questions, and we may not all agree on the answers. But we do know this much: driving a PR campaign is a lot like driving a car. Before you get on the road, it’s usually a good idea to first know where you want to end up.