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The Weiner Scandal: A Class in PR Mis-Management

Jun 29, 2011

It was the political scandal heard round the country – former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner found himself in the midst of a media hailstorm after posting an inappropriate picture to his public Twitter account. In the resulting onslaught of criticism, Weiner chose to fight a brazen (and perhaps ill-advised) battle to avoid resignation. As the very drawn out process went on, he gathered much more negative publicity and media attention than was necessary. After following the entire scandal in the news, we have to wonder what Weiner was thinking when he made the post-scandal decisions that he did. ThinkInk’s Chief Visibility Officer Vanessa Horwell recently shared her thoughts in an article for MediaPost, which can be read below:

Dirty Men, Double Entendres, Damage Control

by Vanessa Horwell

I almost started this column four weeks ago, just after news broke of Anthony Weiner’s pecker being paraded on Twitter. But I hesitated: what’s the big deal? It’s a harmless pic … pervy men post tasteless photos of their willies all the time. It will blow over.

And blow until last week it did.

Over the following weeks, I watched as Weiner’s story morphed from a computer hack to a misjudgment, to a televised apology à la Tiger, to a string of lies that revealed Anthony Weiner to be not only an insidious liar but a destroyer of progressive ideals and a shatterer of political integrity.

Okay, maybe that’s going a little overboard, but Weiner’s shenanigans demonstrate a trend among male politicians — the crown for which, until recently, was held by Republicans. A trend that highlights how hypocrisy, lies and political sex scandals have become acceptable in our society.

It seems that perviness, narcissism and good old-fashioned idiocy are bipartisan offenders. I won’t go into the “why” here, but how can they think they’ll get away with it? Is the public to blame?

Perhaps.

One rule when being sworn into office is not to lie to your constituents. Another is not to expose your private parts to the universe. Clearly, a lot of men can’t help themselves with the latter, but we’ve tolerated a growing number of sex-related scandals in the past few years (Sen. David Vitter and Mark Sanford’s, for example) that have set a precedent.

So why have we accepted that it’s okay to deceive, deny and lie publicly if you’re a politician? One could argue that when a degree of morally bankrupt behavior gets a pass, it lends a teachable moment to A-listers’ PR factories. Each indiscretion, however miniscule, provides a backdrop for the next literal battle of the bulge, Weiner-style. For social networking scandals, there’s the hacking defense; for extramarital affairs, there’s sex-addiction rehab. Just as our communication options have skyrocketed, so have options for finger-pointing.

There’s no doubt that Weiner’s lack of a PR powerhouse made a difference in how he handled his scandal. The end result of resignation may have been the same, due to the last straw that was wife Huma Abedin’s pregnancy news, but the timeline and details would have been different.

Weiner committed many a foul that could have been squelched by a PR professional. The laundry list includes calling a CNN producer a “jackass” and responding to initial inquiries with a political-brand blend of defensiveness and near sarcasm. Not to mention the bald-faced lying. Backtracking on hacking claims didn’t enhance the sincerity of Weiner’s following press appearances, nor did his lack of a promised “investigation” into the Twitter-centric rumors.

Despite shameful image handling, Weiner knew the importance of having proper PR backup. Gossip powerhouse TMZ published a message from Weiner to former porn star Ginger Lee offering help from a “professional PR type person” and saying that someone from his “team” could call her. It’s not clear whether Weiner was offering use of his congressional staff — another ethical violation right there — but no matter what, Weiner wanted Lee to use his tactics.

“The key is to have a short, thought-out statement that tackles the top-line questions and then refer people back to it. Have a couple of iterations of: ‘This is silly,'” he allegedly wrote to Lee.

Lee would have been better off consulting someone who wasn’t embroiled in the scandal. Nevertheless, Weiner was right: A plan and a PR pro will get you far.

I can’t say whether or not Weiner’s public would have accepted his lack of resignation, but that’s only because there were — and are — issues competing for our attention. During the week his scandal exploded, there was disheartening job market news, fighting in Libya, a political crisis in Yemen, and a volcanic eruption. Weiner’s scandal was also a distraction from the debt ceiling deadline. We would eventually have to look elsewhere, to decision making that could make a larger difference than Weiner’s resignation, or lack thereof.

While terribly embarrassing for upstanding politicians and the general public, Weiner’s battle to avoid resigning resonated worldwide. By drawing things out, Weiner deepened and extended scandal coverage. Since then, there’s been a political scandal in China (Liu Ning, a district official in Guangzhou, allegedly used social networking to send X-rated pics) and one in Belgium (Prime Minister Yves Leterme purportedly sent over 800 text messages to his mistress).

Considering the scale of Weiner’s downfall, it’s hard to imagine these politicians topping it. One thing is certain, however: they’ve gotten close, however unwittingly. If they’ve learned anything from Weiner, hopefully it’s to suit up with the right representation from the get-go … and to bow out quickly after damage control.

Read the full article.

About Vanessa Horwell

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at vanessa@thinkinkpr.com.

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