Weiner case study: When does the public forgive bad behavior?


Anthony Weiner, when last we checked, remained fodder for brilliant tabloid headlines. From the New York Post:

“Weiner Exposed,” [subhed: “Battle of the Bulge”] heralded his downfall in 2011 when he apparently texted a picture of his apparatus to a woman not his wife.

Followed by “Weiner’s Rise and Fall,” after he admitted his transgressions, but only after lengthy denials.

“Weiner’s Second Coming,” tagged his attempted return to office when he recently announced he would run for mayor of New York City to succeed Michael Bloomberg.

Clever and barbed headlines aside, when does the public “forgive” someone who has transgressed and humiliated themselves publicly? For how long does bad behavior by a politician, sports figure or business person keep him or her from doing what they do best? And what can an individual do to rehabilitate their reputation?

Examples beyond Weiner abound. Gen. David Petraeus, who admitted to an extra-marital affair with his biographer, is giving speeches and some think he could still run for president. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose affair was the least of his bizarre behavior, won election this month to the House, four years after he resigned in disgrace. [Congress is probably his best fit]. No one can forget Bill Clinton. Can Eliot Spitzer be far behind?

By comparison, Weiner’s virtual sexual come ons were tame. Their cachet and fascination probably stemmed as much from the means of communication and how he got caught as the act itself. The idea of sexting was relatively new — and, he denied and denied until the evidence overwhelmed him. Weiner, a congressman at the time, probably drew more attention in 2011 than he might today.

But what does a person have to do to regain public trust and confidence — or at least enough to win 51 percent of a mayoral vote? There are no absolutes. New York City voters are likely more forgiving of a liberal Democrat’s mistakes than might be voters in Texas or Arizona, for instance.

But there is a playbook. Apologizing, taking the hit, and standing up to the blast furnace of public scorn without melting are elements in initial rehab. Weiner did that.

Next, put your personal life and family in order and communicate that publicly. The New York Times ran a not very coincidental story May 23 saying that Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife, was a driving force behind his mayoral candidacy. Really? The story even noted that he recently reactivated his Twitter account — the siren that first called him onto the rocks.

Also from that story:

As Mr. Weiner, a Democrat, seeks an improbable return to politics, announcing this week that he is running for mayor of New York City, some have wondered how a politician who exchanged sexually explicit messages with strangers could persuade his wife to undergo another excruciating period in the spotlight.       

But the reality, it turns out, is just the opposite: Those close to the couple say that Ms. Abedin, a seasoned operative well versed in the politics of redemption, has been a main architect of her husband’s rehabilitative journey, shaping his calculated comeback and drawing on her close ties with one of the country’s most powerful families to lay the groundwork for his return.

And, in case readers missed the significance, the picture above accompanying the story showed Abedin with Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom Abedin worked as a close advisor for many years. Get the parallel? You sure? It’s pretty obscure.

Then, as Weiner did last night, you come back out. You submit yourself to renewed public scrutiny and let people judge your performance. His effort at an educational forum for Democratic mayor candidates seemed effective. He was glib, frank and seemed to find some rhythm and purchase with the crowd. The Times barely paid any attention to the other four candidates present.

Who knows at this point what lies ahead? Surely if Weiner emerges as a frontrunner he’ll become a target again for the other candidates. Snide reaches full expression only in politics.

But Weiner has at least been successful getting this far. He’s still testing the waters, and the deep end still awaits, but he seems to be gaining the benefit of the doubt. No easy task.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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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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