As millions of Texans were huddling in their homes enduring days without heat or water, their junior senator, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: What’s next for Neera Tanden’s nomination GOP signals Biden AG pick will come under pressure over Cuomo Manchin to oppose Biden’s pick of Neera Tanden MORE, boarded a plane to Cancun. The plan was to spend the weekend soaking up some sun with his family at the Ritz Carlton.
But then a photo emerged of the senator aboard the plane to Mexico during a once in a generation cold-weather crisis at home. The smartphone snap of the senator prompted instant outrage from his constituents who had been sharing photos of their own on social media of frozen toilets, ice block aquariums and jagged icicles dangling from living room ceiling fans.
When word got out that Sen. Cruz had left the state for a weekend beach vacation, the blowback from Texans, the internet mob, and political leaders from both sides of the aisle, was swift and intense.
In addition to calls for his resignation, Cruz’s ill-fated sojourn south of the border became the escape that launched a thousand memes. Cruz earned himself a raft of new nicknames, including “Cancun Cruz,” “Flyin’ Ted” and “Fled Cruz” — and was even depicted as Marie Antoinette, complete with the tagline “Let them eat snow.”
You don’t need to be an expert in crisis management to recognize that Sen. Cruz would have been hard-pressed to script a bigger unforced PR error and political blunder. Returning home after less than 24 hours away is evidence enough that he realized the gravity of his self-inflicted crisis.
Unfortunately for Cruz, the pump was already primed for outrage; at least 47 Texans are dead so far, and the public has been understandably furious about the failure of the Lone Star state’s infrastructure to perform under duress at even a basic level. With so much anger already rising, Cruz made himself an easy lightning rod for all the Texans’ rage to hold someone to account.
In times of crisis people are more desperate than ever for leadership, and public servants can play positive roles not just through their direct actions, but also through the examples they set, inspiring people to take action to help their neighbors.
By providing the complete opposite, Cruz drew a target on his own back. And his troubles have been compounded by the fact that he has repeatedly and publicly criticized other leaders for golfing or taking vacations during times of crisis.
So where does Cruz go from here?
I do crisis communications; here’s how I see it.
Cruz has tried to explain his vacation by claiming he wanted “to be a good dad” when “our girls asked to take a trip with friends.” He should drop that justification immediately. Don’t try to pin this on your children or turn yourself into some sort of martyr on the altar of parental devotion.
You’re an adult and a United States Senator: Accept responsibility for your decision, which you alone made.
As far as apologies go, Cruz has already been forced to admit that he screwed up. “Look, it was obviously a mistake,” he told T.V. cameras waiting for him when he hastily returned. “In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it. I was trying to be a dad.”
Moving forward, Cruz should drop that last line and just be willing to admit he made a colossal error in judgment. There is little risk in saying what’s already obvious to everyone.
Cruz should also proceed with extreme caution on Twitter and other social media platforms: He should err on the side of caution by carefully considering how detractors may be able to weaponize any of his words against him.
Cruz should also tone down his attacks on political opponents and abandon the ad hominems. He cannot credibly criticize anyone else when his own house is not in order.
Starting today, Cruz needs to avoid even the word “Mexico,” and stop talking about the trip.
When asked — and he will be asked over and over again, ad nauseam — he should declare that it was a mistake, reiterate that he apologized for it and pivot immediately to what he has actually done since then to serve the people of Texas.
In that same vein, he should make a concerted and rapid effort to replace the images now most associated with him — Cruz sitting on a departing plane, fleeing reporters at the airport, apologizing awkwardly in a puffy jacket — with images, both stills and video, that show him actually doing things to help his constituents.
He could get out there in the snow and ice, serve meals to people in need. Yes, people will see through it, at least initially, but getting out into the community would also show that he is not just remorseful but that he is engaged and active. He will be criticized and accused of employing cynical PR strategies — but at least he will be making a positive contribution and living out a commitment to public service… and the new images eventually will supplant the old.
In the end, Sen. Cruz’s best hope will be personally achieving some tangible results that improve the plight of people in Texas — not just during this storm, but in the weeks and months that follow.
Because he’s been widely and openly disliked for years by both Democrats and members of his own Republican party, there are many in Washington who are secretly reveling in Ted Cruz bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. Many will say he just derailed his presidential ambitions and condemned his political legacy for the long haul. And they will say it a lot and to anyone who will listen.
Time will tell, but Cruz should be worried.
Americans today seem to be signaling that they are looking for leaders willing to forego naked hypocrisy for a healthy dose of humility. That may not come easily or naturally to Cruz, but he should try it.
Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.