After the self-inflicted public relations disaster and tabloid frenzy that eviscerated Anthony Weiner’s once promising political career earlier this summer, it's appropriate to reflect on a few online reputation management lessons from this PR nightmare and some steps that can be taken to avoid another media meltdown.
It’s not going to just “go away”. Not in New York. Not in 2011. Not in the age of Twitter. It took Congressman Weiner days to respond to the media. His initial comments were arrogant and the ensuing scandal unfolded as if it were written by a Fox News editor.
To quickly recap, in case you were abducted by space aliens or recently emerged from a coma, on Friday May 27, a crotch photo was sent from Congressman Weiner’s Twitter account to a 21 year old Twitter follower. The image was immediately deleted and a subsequent tweet from Weiner’s account claimed he was hacked. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart releases the image and the media feeding frenzy begins. After 3 days of evasive answers to requests for further elaboration and rampant speculation that there was more “there” there, Weiner held a May 31 news conference calling the matter a “distraction” refusing to answer further questions about the photo. “Look, I’m not going to allow this to be what I talk about all week,” Weiner said. After CNN reporter Dana Bash repeatedly requested further comment on the image, Weiner called her producer a “jackass.”
Refusing to comment on a scandal is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Anthony Weiner could have spared himself (some of) the carnage that unfolded in the press had he simply taken immediate responsibility for his ill-considered tweet and responded directly and honestly to the questions asked by reporters and constituents. The end result was preordained. A tearful public apology on June 6, followed by a staggering, wrenching limp to his resignation announcement on June 16.
Ironically, the June 6 address was a lesson in humility and full disclosure – a marked contrast to his earlier public statements and one that, had the timing been reversed, could have salvaged his political career. Weiner stood up and said: "I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media." As for the controversial picture, Weiner stated: "to be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it.”
Stepping away from public life is the ultimate humiliation for an ambitious politician like Anthony Weiner. Weiner had watched Bill Clinton survive his sex scandal and Weiner had surely hoped that he could have done the same. However, by leaving office and retreating from the Beltway maelstrom, the former Congressman has an incredible opportunity to devote his enormous talent to repair his marriage and his image.
After any reputation crisis, there needs to be time for introspection. Take a step away from the camera (or computer) and spend some time in the darkness. There is something about the sound of silence that helps people think smarter.
After a well-planned retreat, it is time to take stock of the damage and despite how painful and embarrassing the circumstances, learn from any mistakes that were made.
Everyone should start by asking a few basic questions:
What did I do wrong?
What did I do right?
What would I do different next time?
After you have answered these three questions, take a long deep breath and ask:
What can I do right now to repair my (or my company’s) reputation?
For some, redemption may occur in weeks. For others it may take months. While some wait many, many years. Those who are most successful do not wait very long to take action. After the initial retreat from shame or embarrassment, they plan their comeback.
Some write a song or a book. Others support a favorite charity or find ways to help others. Eventually, especially public figures, want to read good things about themselves in the newspaper and on the internet. That is when they discover online reputation management.
The best online reputation management companies create and promote positive online content to minimize the visibility (and impact) of negative online content. The internet is written with permanent ink — one of the most dramatic lessons from Weinergate is the immense power of social media. I am not a marriage counselor or a therapist – I am sure Congressman Weiner will have to work very hard through his own healing process. But I have worked with many clients facing serious public relations disasters and have developed innovative online reputation management strategies that help clients regain control over their online image.