Whether Tara Reade is telling the truth is not a matter I can definitively adjudicate. But I can conclude that Reade’s public relations effort failed.
Her story never dominated a news cycle. Nearly all coverage of her allegations of sexual harassment and assault was paired with questions about her consistency and veracity. The charges did not lose Biden the support of a single elected Democrat or Democratic-allied organization, and he has retained a lead over Donald Trump in most national and swing state polls.
Why did her communications strategy fail? Some factors were out of her control. The pandemic is a once-in-a-century (*fingers crossed*) crisis, crowding out most other news. The charges were leveled against a presidential candidate in the middle of a high-stakes election, making it easy for the accusations to be viewed through partisan filters. (In The Hill-HarrisX poll, 73% of Republicans “strongly” or “somewhat” believe the sexual assault charges, while 70% of Democrats “strongly” or “somewhat” don’t believe them.)
But Reade made big strategic mistakes. And those missteps should be understood, especially by anyone who might publicly charge a prominent person with sexual misconduct, or anyone counseling an accuser. Without a thoughtful, deliberate communications strategy, even a person telling the truth can be easily maligned as a liar.
Reade’s first mistake was back in April 2019, when she told several reporters Biden touched her neck and shoulder inappropriately, while insisting the behavior was not sexual and not alleging sexual assault. Reade, in her interview with Megyn Kelly, said she held back those details at the time because she found herself “lacking in courage” when asked if Biden’s behavior was sexual. That’s arguably a reasonable response for a trauma survivor. Moreover, omitting a large chapter of one’s story is not quite the same as changing one’s story.
However, Reade didn’t just omit. She, along with one of her corroborators, characterized the alleged touching incidents in ways that are hard to square with the additional charge of assault.
Reade said to the Associated Press in 2019, “I wasn’t scared of him, that he was going to take me in a room or anything. It wasn’t that kind of vibe.” And an anonymous friend who this year claimed Reade told her of the assault contemporaneously, told Vox in 2019, “On the scale of other things we heard, and I feel ashamed, but it wasn’t that bad. [Biden] never tried to kiss her directly. He never went for one of those touches. It was one of those, ‘Sorry you took it that way.’” But Reade said this past March, on “The Katie Halper Show” podcast, that Biden “penetrated me with his fingers and he was kissing me at the same time.”
When Vox’s Laura McGann reconnected with the anonymous friend and asked about the discrepancy about the kissing, the friend said, “It just organically rolled out that way. [Reade] and I had many conversations a year ago about what her degree of comfort was. She wanted to leave a layer there, and I did not want to betray that.”
Survivors don’t always tell consistent stories about their traumatic experiences over the course of their lives for various reasons. They may not want to become public fodder. They may feel pressure to maintain working relationships with their abusers or their abusers’ friends. Their memories may be hazy. But once you engage with the media, you can’t tell an inconsistent story and necessarily expect to be believed. Even if Reade wanted to initially “leave a layer” and not go outside her comfort zone, neither she or nor her friend should have painted a picture than ran contrary to her complete story.
The second big mistake was the brazen political timing, or at least, the appearance of brazen political timing. On the evening of March 3, the night of Biden’s big Super Tuesday wins, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim prognosticated on Twitter that a race which boiled down to Biden and Bernie Sanders would go “badly” for Biden. Reade replied, “Yup. Timing… wait for it….tic toc.” Three weeks later came that podcast interview with Halper alleging sexual assault.
Reade had previously expressed support for other Democratic primary candidates besides Biden. Anytime a scandalous accusation against a politician comes from a political opponent, the motive will be questioned. This is a challenge for anyone leveling an accusation against a politician, but it’s an even steeper challenge in the midst of a campaign, and steeper still when the accuser publicly suggests a political motive.
Reade tried to put the tweet in a more innocuous context during the Kelly interview: “That was in response to me getting finally, I thought, an attorney from Time’s Up [Legal Defense Fund] to finally bring something forward and bring my story forward in a safe way.” But in the same interview, she didn’t deny the obvious political ramifications, acknowledging, “Everything’s political, right?” (Furthermore, The Intercept reported that Reade learned in February that “that no assistance could be provided [from Time’s Up] because the person she was accusing, Biden, was a candidate for federal office, and assisting a case against him could jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status.” So it doesn’t follow that she thought she was getting a Time’s Up attorney on March 3.)
The third mistake was choosing Kelly for her first on-camera interview, following Joe Biden’s televised denial on Friday, May 1. Reade was scheduled to respond the following Sunday on “Fox News Sunday,” but she cancelled. She also cancelled on CNN’s weeknight show with Don Lemon. The interview with Kelly was posted to a YouTube channel the evening of Friday May 8.
The delay in Reade’s response was damaging. She waited a full seven days to respond to Biden. In the interim, the Associated Press and Vox published stories raising further questions about her account. Democratic officeholders solidified their support for Biden. Negative perceptions of Reade’s account were able to settle in the minds of many, especially Democrats.
The choice of Kelly proved misguided for purely practical reasons. As Kelly no longer has a TV show, her interviews don’t have the same reach that they used to. A CNN interview gets highlights replayed on CNN all day long, and probably gets residual coverage on other networks as well, reaching multiple millions of people. Kelly’s YouTube video of the Reade interview has yet to rack up 1 million views.
Even more importantly, Kelly failed to ask Reade an exhaustive list of tough questions. Kelly suffered sexual harassment at Fox News, so she speculated she was chosen because “[Reade] knew I would ask tough questions and, as she put it, that I am ‘trauma-informed.’”
But Kelly didn’t ask many tough questions. She touched upon the lack of an assault charge in Reade’s 2019 account, but didn’t raise the specific contradictory quotes published by Associated Press and Vox. She didn’t ask why Reade’s brother told the Washington Post two different accounts. She didn’t ask why, when her mother called “Larry King Live” to talk about her daughter’s “problems” in a Senate office, the mother didn’t mention assault and didn’t say the senator was the cause of the problems.
For Reade’s own sake, she needed to be asked every possible question related to potential holes in her story, so she could put every counter-allegation to rest. And she needed a questioner willing to do so. While a trauma survivor should not suffer gratuitously harsh treatment from an obnoxious TV host, once your credibility is being challenged, you can’t reclaim it without facing every criticism head-on.
These public relations lessons matter. We should continue to change the culture so accusers are not subjected to character assassination when assessing the veracity of their accounts. But the reality is, so long as there are prominent men committing sexual misconduct against women, there will be women who have to face the media spotlight in order to hold their abusers accountable. And since there will never be a uniformly accepted standard that all women should be believed regardless of circumstance, female accusers will need to adopt effective communications strategies in order to be widely believed and successfully secure justice.