Records shed little light on Haley’s crisis response

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State in the House chambers at the Statehouse in Columbia on Jan. 20.

A voice that is almost completely absent from the 10,000 emails and correspondence sent to Gov. Nikki Haley in the aftermath of last year’s Emanuel AME Church shooting and subsequent Confederate flag debate is the governor’s herself.

Records show Haley declined to leave any sort of electronic public footprint post-Emanuel.

Instead, she used what appeared to be one of at least two pre-written template responses to reply to emails from those voicing strong opinions on the shooting that killed nine black parishioners on June 17, 2015, and the Legislature’s pending removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact us,” Haley wrote in one emailed response. “Inspired by the victims’ families and the reopening of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, I felt compelled to make a statement about moving the flag from the Statehouse grounds.”

Several writers expressed gratitude for receiving an email from the governor during an obviously busy time, while others shared frustrations at what appeared to be a canned response.

“You clearly did not read my email,” a man identified only as Clifton wrote July 7, 2015. “You just sent your generic standard reply. If you did read it, you would understand why you should leave the flag up.”

There appears to be no record of emails from the governor to staff members, legislators or law enforcement — entries that could have given the public a more vivid behind-the-scenes picture of what transpired in the critical hours after Dylann Roof was identified, captured and charged in the Emanuel aftermath.

“While the governor does sometimes use her state email address to communicate with staff and other state officials, she finds it more productive to speak directly with them, in person when possible, and when not, via phone,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.

Haley’s office released the paper trail they did have on Wednesday after The Post and Courier and several other media outlets requested the documents through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

When asked about the apparent lack of e-communication across local, state and the federal government, the governor’s office said Haley held conversations in person or on the phone about Emanuel and the flag question.

John Crotts, a professor at the College of Charleston School of Business who has written about crisis management, said it’s not abnormal for the leader of a corporation — or government in Haley’s case — to choose not to leave an electronic footprint.

“I think you condition your executive team to not have a paper trail,” he said. “A lot of people would advise against that.”

University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications Dean Charles Bierbauer said, as a South Carolinian, he was pleased Haley took genuine, personal and active steps after the shooting to manage the crisis instead of engaging in back-and-forth potentially misconstrued or time-consuming emails.

“If I had a crisis, I’d gather my closest advisors and say, ‘Here are my thoughts. What are yours about what we’re going to do?’ ” he said.

Haley’s off-the-grid habit isn’t unique, and she isn’t the only South Carolina politician who appears to consciously avoid email. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for example, said last year that he had never sent an email. He said he prefers to receive texts and, if they are important, he’ll pick up the phone to respond.

Haley’s office also has been exposed to embarrassment surrounding emails in the past, especially early in her first term. In the aftermath of Haley’s March 2011 decision to replace University of South Carolina Board of Trustees member and noted investor Darla Moore with a campaign contributor, emails revealed that her staff spent days searching for an explanation they could sell.

Emails from the time showed Haley was considering replacing Moore with Lexington attorney and campaign contributor Tommy Cofield within a few weeks of becoming governor that January. At the time, her office said Moore was removed because she couldn’t be bothered to return the governor’s call and set up a meeting to discuss the board position in a timely manner.

Crotts said knowing that crisis information is public, or could one day be made public, could keep people in powerful positions from sending emails or other written correspondence as they try to keep a lid on response knowns, unknowns and unfolding matters.

“I think everybody’s aware of the Freedom of Information Act and public record,” he said. “I can see in highly critical issues why you’d want to keep the paper trail very limited.”

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.