The old joke in Washington, DC was that the most dangerous place in the nation’s capitol was between New York Congressman Anthony Weiner and a television camera. Thanks to Twitter, we now know that it was really between Weiner and any camera.
The sordid details are now well known. Weiner’s fall from grace is complete. But what bears examining is why Weiner, like so many other public figures when confronted with scandal, failed at the most basic element of crisis communications: Tell the truth.
History is replete with examples of public figures that decided to obfuscate and deny rather than step forward to honestly admit their failings. These men (and they have always been men) fail to realize that scandals – especially sex scandals – are like bandages on a hairy chest: You should always pull the bandage off quickly. Yes, it will hurt like hell, but the pain will be over that much sooner. Lying and denying is akin to pulling the bandage off slowly, plucking each hair one by one, prolonging your agony.
Cover-ups are always worse than the original sin. Always. The court of public opinion is the polar opposite of the legal courtroom. You are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Today’s 24-hour cable news cycle magnifies this all the more. Knowing this, it is best to do two things: Step forward and admit that you did wrong and then fall on the mercy of the American people.
Because you are already presumed guilty by the media, you have nothing to lose by covering up your offense. Coming forward and admitting your sin changes the scandal narrative immediately. Rather than intensifying the focus on your wrong, you immediately shift the narrative to your attempt at righting the wrong. Your brutal honesty will be seen as refreshing. Because you decided not to B.S. the public, they will forgive you that much faster precisely because you didn’t attack their intelligence. The public will collectively give you a pass because they understand human nature and can appreciate a personal failing. But, we Americans never appreciate being lied to.
President Bill Clinton could have avoided impeachment and spared the nation months of tawdry details by simply stepping forward and admitting that he indeed did have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The American public would have given Clinton a pass because we always knew he was not a choir boy and, most importantly, he never pretended to be one, openly admitting in the 1992 presidential campaign that he had “caused pain in his marriage.” (That’s another thing… Americans are quite good at reading between the lines.)
For his part, now former congressman, Anthony Weiner could have weathered the media hurricane by admitting he not only sent an inappropriate photo, but that he had sent many other photos. He could have preempted the other women out there by telling the media that other photos that would certainly surface. Admitting that he was not perfect, that he had failed his family and let down his constituents and friends, Weiner would have been given a crucial, if limited, lifeline of political credit that would have allowed him to weather the storm – although he would still have had to endure the brunt of the late night comedians. But Weiner could have survived.
You would be happy to know that not all politicians lie about their peccadilloes. During the 1884 presidential campaign, Republican political operatives spread word that the Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child with a Buffalo, New York prostitute. Cleveland was a bachelor and it was well known in Buffalo that as a young lawyer, he spent time in ‘houses of ill repute.’ Republican activists coined the phrase “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” to hound the Cleveland campaign.
But when Cleveland’s campaign staff confronted him on the scandal and inquired as to what the campaign’s response should be, Cleveland boldly told them: “Tell the truth.” The New York governor frankly admitted that he had been with the woman; he said he was unsure if the child was his but had taken it upon himself to pay child support. (In truth, the child may not have been his. It is believed that Cleveland accepted responsibility because he was the only bachelor among the suspected fathers.) The result? The scandal quickly faded. Cleveland’s supporters touted his honesty as a virtue and tied it into the campaign’s overall narrative about the corruption fighting, political machine challenging, honest Empire State governor. On Election Day, Americans elected Cleveland as their 22nd president. And to their vengeful delight, Cleveland’s supporters responded to the chants of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” with “Went to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
127 years later, Cleveland’s example provides politicians with a valuable lesson in how to handle a scandal. But it’s sad when one realizes that it’s the most recent example.
Jason Matthews is the Public Relations Director for KK BOLD. He fondly remembers the Grover Cleveland administration from his childhood.