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Flacking the Good Flack

Here's a good one: Guess who's giving crisis communications advice on how Don Imus should have spun his way out of the derogatory slur he made about the Rutgers women's basketball team?

Answer: the former spokesman for ex-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), whose racist and sexist gaffes contributed to his downfall in the 2006 mid-term elections.

That's right, Burns' former press secretary, Matt Mackowiak, is dispensing advice on his Potomac Flacks blog, noting that the "racist, sexist comments made by Don Imus and his co-hosts on his nationally syndicated radio and television program has served as another reminder of how to deal with PR crises - and more importantly how not to."

From his experience in the trenches working for a man with interminable foot-in-mouth syndrome, Mackowiak knows what it's like to try to dig your way - or your boss's way - out of a deep, deep hole.

Remember, Conrad Burns was the man who referred to Arabs as "rag heads," asked a woman with a nose ring what "tribe" she was from and told a group of lobbyists accompanying him to an auction that "slaves" would be on the auction block.

And who could forget about the time Burns decided to tell a journalist (of all people) about a conversation he had had with a rancher back home? The rancher, according to Burns, asked the senator, "Conrad, how can you live back there [in Washington, DC] with all those [racially derogatory terms]?" Burns reportedly replied it was "a hell of a challenge."

Good thing that today we have Mackowiak, the former Burns spokesman, doling out sage advice on how he would have advised handling the Imus crisis!

"1) Apologize quickly - Do it the same day, on the air, during his show," Mackowiak says on his site.

Rule No. 2, says Mackowiak, "feel their pain." Imus, he says, "should have gone to Rutgers immediately, met with the parents, coaches, and players, even wrote an Op Ed in the school paper." And Rule No. 3, he says, is "take a break." Imus should have taken the rest of the week off.

A spokesman for a Democratic Senator (who asked that his identity remain on the QT) who is on Mackowiak's Potomac Flacks' listserv couldn't help but laugh at the irony. "Matt was Burns' flack. Burns got lots of flack for racist and sexist comments. Burns loses re-election. Now Matt is telling us all how to handle Imus's issue. Funny," the Democratic spokesman wrote in an email to the Sleuth.

But Mackowiak is a self-deprecating good sport about the flack from other flacks.

"There's a difference between crisis communications in theory and in practice," Mackowiak tells us. "And only when you have been through some battles yourself, made some mistakes, fought the good fight, and learned from it, can you be in a position to offer advice. Working for Sen. Burns or at the Department of Homeland Security as I did, you are on the front lines everyday and it can only make you better."

By Mary Ann Akers  |  April 12, 2007; 6:36 PM ET
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