Political sex scandals are quickly becoming the most popular headlines of the new millennium. Jim McGreevey was governor of New Jersey until he admitted that he was a homosexual and unfaithful to his wife. Former Congressman Mark Foley headed to rehab after officials discovered his lewd e-mails and instant messages sent to teenage pages. Earlier this month, Eliot Spitzer resigned his post as the governor of New York when his involvement in a local prostitution ring came to light. Upon his succession to the New York governorship, David Paterson immediately admitted to past extramarital affairs. In the good old days, shock and outrage were the country’s automatic reactions, but Americans these days merely sigh when they open up their morning paper to find that their newest elected leader has a less-than-desirable past.
The question is this: do constituents really care about the personal lives of their leaders? It seems that as long as everyone is “open” about what went on and nothing illegal took place, anything goes. Sexual misconduct among politicians becomes a joke on late-night television; soon it’s pushed to the back of our minds by the next big scandal on the news. There’s a growing trend for shamed politicians to publicly condemn their immoral actions, apologize to their families and conclude with a sorrowful resignation. This is the “proper,” generally accepted method in the realm of public relations, evidenced by countless news conferences in which these officials follow an almost identical pattern. But from a public relations perspective, is there a better way for politicians to deal with scandals that could ruin their professional reputation forever?
Savannah’s Opinion: I am not so sure that there is any better way of cleaning up the dirty work of fallen politicians. Unfortunately, Americans are desensitized to political misbehavior and have learned not to expect too much from the nation’s leaders. Therefore, it comes as no shock when another sex scandal surfaces; instead perhaps just a bit of disappointment and thoughts of “Well, there’s another one.”
The key to building back a decent reputation is not in the few days that follow a fallout. It is in the weeks, months and even years after. A simple apology and resignation are good gestures, but not enough to wipe the slate clean. As with everything else in life, it takes time for people to move past and forgive a disappointment. If these politicians wish to continue a career in politics, they need to really take some time and work through their personal struggles. They should step out of the spot light for a while and let the chaos fade. Later, return to the public eye with a vengeance and be prepared to do what it takes to show Americans that they are worthy of a second chance and have risen above their mistakes.
The ultimate public relations strategy would be to avoid these situations all together, but of course, politicians are human just like the rest of us and will continue to make unwise decisions. Americans will never forget a mistake, but are certainly able to give second chances.
Sarah’s Opinion: I agree with Savannah; it takes more than just a well-publicized apology and a few tears to get back into the public’s good graces. Unfortunately, these days that only applies to really big and potentially illegal sex scandals, like the one involving Spitzer. Consider Bill Clinton: he messed up inexcusably, yet the public either has forgotten the Monica Lewinsky incident or has chosen to ignore it in the face of all he has done since his presidency. It takes time and a good publicist to win back the hearts of the American people (and more importantly, the press).
The flip side of the coin is the example of David Paterson. Here’s a guy who flat out admits that he and his wife cheated on each other (not to mention that he has “tried cocaine”). When I read his statement, I find myself nodding along and applauding him for being forthcoming with this information. Then it hits me. Is the fact that he admits to his mistakes before they are sniffed out something that is admirable? I’m not so sure, but I am sure that coming clean to the public in a humble fashion before journalists get a hold of the misdeed is much more acceptable than apologizing afterward. People like to know that their elected leaders have nothing to hide, or at the very least, that they can maintain the appearance of morality. If it’s the best they can do, I guess we’ll have to take it. Americans, say goodbye to “leading by example.”
Savannah Lanier and Sarah Yates
See these videos for more information:
“Eliot Spitzer Resignation”
“Paterson Affair CS”
Read these articles for more information:
“New York Gov. Spitzer resigns amid sex scandal”
“New NY Governor Admits Affairs Years Ago