When private behavior becomes public scandal

Is what Herman Cain did 10 or 15 years ago with various women when employed in the private sector relevant to his public candidacy today?

Are Mitt Romney‘s private spending habits a germain insight into how he might create a multi-billion dollar federal budget? Should we infer from his penurious ways that he will whittle trillions from the federal deficit just by taking office?

Should the media out two consenting adults who happen to be elementary school teachers in a Western New York town because they have the horrendous judgment to have sex in a public restroom at Ralph Wilson Stadium during a Buffalo Bills game?

Should Syracuse Head Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim pay a judgment for defaming two men who claimed to be sexual abuse victims of his assistant coach Bernie Fine after Boeheim said publicly they were just out to get money?

Should ostensibly private expressions by New York City police officers, shared among friends on Facebook, make them answerable to their superiors for racism and bias?

Is it scandalous that Chris Lee, Anthony Weiner, Brett Favre and a long list of others decided to hit on women via social media?

As we’ve seen hundreds of times, what was once private is now public. What many people thought today should remain private they realize the next day is forever public — with repercussions.

Who sets the standards? Who makes the decisions?

A sitting governor frequenting hookers was probably not that big a deal 100 years ago — when wayward men made all the rules. But it cost a New York governor his job and reputation 100 years later.

If you Google “scandal” and try to pin it down somewhat, scores of historical figures emerge. Thomas Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton. Catherine the Great. Grover Cleveland. Ted and John Kennedy. Perhaps the ultimate, Henry the VIII. Did we mention the Medici popes?

President James Buchanan was likely gay. While not scandalous today, it was in 1844.

There are also the blurred list of institutional scandals: corporate, church, military, CEO, bank, investor, accounting, football, baseball, soccer, automotive and educational.

What’s shines through all these “that’s-my-private-life-made-public” scandals is that only one politician in recent years survived it with his job and reputation, such as it was, intact. New York Gov. David Paterson — showing an astute understanding of the system and world he was about to move up a notch in, unlike Herman Cain — announced  his personal peccadilloes to the public and media his first full day in office. Yes, he and his wife [stationed by his side] had had extramarital affairs. Yes, he admitted a short time later, he had used drugs; right, cocaine and pot.

How did he survive to serve the rest of disgraced predecessor Gov. Elliot Spitzer‘s term? Paterson fessed up immediately, before anyone could catch him; and, he followed Elliot Spitzer, who’d just run the governorship onto the rocks. Even New Yorkers, even the Albany media, have limits on how many scandals they can handle simultaneously

In rare, probably unique circumstances, you can be painted with scandalous behavior and survive because you’re not as bad as the previous person to whom you’re compared.

Don’t make that your crisis management strategy, but it is a crucial lesson. Be the bearer of your own bad news.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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