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Joe Clements: UCF scandal highlights changing rules in ‘new normal’ of politics, media

A controversial, cynical — and sad — commentary on the state of our society.

It’s time for a little armchair quarterbacking.

Normally, I don’t usually like to venture a guess in any situation with dozens of variables that are unknown to those on the outside.

Except, in this case, I think everyone in The Process can learn from what’s going on with the University of Central Florida over the last two weeks.

First, the most important thing to understand is that there is a new normal — the traditional rules of media management no longer apply.

The sane model of crisis management is to take responsibility, get the facts out and make changes where needed.

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Gone are those semi-innocent days.

The new mantra for surviving political crises: “Never apologize. Never explain. Always attack. Wait it out.”

For this, there’s a lot of blame to go around: Donald Trump, Balkanized American culture, declining trust in institutions.

But explaining the reasons why the rules have changed is outside the scope of this piece.

What I hope to describe is a controversial, cynical — and sad — commentary on the state of our society.

My goal here is not to argue the morality of this new normal, but simply outline the new rules as they apply to political crises post-Trump.

Rule 1: Never apologize or explain.

You should never use, mention, or repeat the opponent’s message (unless to mock it). Case in point, I tweeted last week that I thought UCF made a huge mistake by issuing a statement referencing Rep Randy Fine’s call for the school to be shut down.

Few people actually watched the committee meeting, but by repeating Fine’s shutdown idea, the conversation moved from “should we do something about UCF” to “something must be done about UCF!”

Rule 2: Always attack.

Figuratively speaking, the only useful response when attacked is a counterattack.

UCF has a large group of current and former legislators as supporters or alumni — including former House Speaker (now lobbyist) Steve Crisafulli.

As UCF pointed out in their messaging, they are among the largest schools in the nation, with a massive support base that could have been activated to tell the legislature they support the school.

Their “attack” need not be hostile, but a simple show of support.

Rule 3: Wait it out.

If you find yourself dragged into a legislative or political crisis, all you must do is survive the current media cycle. And if the issue drags on legislatively in Florida, all that’s necessary is survive the Session. Sure, you may lose funding — or your legislation fails to pass — but you’ll still survive in the long run (especially if you’ve done a good job with Rule 2).

One side note: I understand universities are governed by boards who can become anxious and cave when put under the spotlight by the Legislature or media. That said, a holdout strategy may not work in all situations.

How effective are these techniques?

Just look at Ralph Northam, Anthony Sabatini, and Trump. Examine how each handles their various scandals and crises. The hallmarks are all there: deny, attack and delay.

Only a few years ago there would have been resignation, rehab or a tearful mea culpa. Now they all double down, dig their heels … and survive.

Yes, one can make the argument that these examples are of politicians, whereas UCF is an institution.

Perhaps, but the dynamics of Twitter, the media and human psychology still apply.

We may not like this new political environment, but we can’t ignore that the ground rules of political theater (and battles) have changed.

The question now facing every political communicator: Does adopting these new rules represent a violation of ethical or professional standards?

Shouldn’t good people simply tell the truth, even if doing so is at the risk of being consumed by a political system hungry for hyperbole and outrage?

Or would the best course of action be using the new rules and win at any cost, even if it means the truth takes a back seat to showmanship?

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