Anthony Weiner has finally resigned, but not before leading the country on a nearly three-week odyssey of sexual imagery, social media and lies. As a lawyer, journalist and political analyst, I have paid close attention to how Weiner has handled his communications strategy. As a New Yorker and news consumer, I have been amazed that, yet another intelligent and ambitious man in high places has made all the wrong choices.
I have covered over countless cases of politicians brought down by scandal and I’ve learned a few things about public life in the post-Watergate era. So, for every current and future politician out there who may have to contend with a potential Page One headline, here is what you to do when reporters come around asking difficult questions:
Rule 1. Tell the truth. Tell it early and tell it often. Because if you do not, someone else will. Long gone are the days of cigar smoking, back room, back-slapping media buddies who will keep your assignations secret for very long.
Socrates said, "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear,” and I agree. But for those who simply cannot live up to their own reputations, the key to reputation management in the era of the 24/7 news cycle is to own your mistakes.
We now know that Anthony Weiner failed this test on day one, two, three, and every day after his own scandal started to unravel, until about day nine of his crisis in reputation management. First, Weiner denied the story and attacked those that were telling the truth. Only as the national fixation on Weiner-gate entered its fifth day did the congressman finally admit that it was “possible” the by-then-infamous crotch photo belonged to him and was simply taken out of context.
It was not until he was faced with total exposure that Weiner finally admitted that, yes, those were his private parts in his shorts posted by him via Twitter -- and that he’d made some 'terrible mistakes.'
But that was too little, too late.
Rule 2. Be Honest. This is a little different from telling the truth; because a truth-teller can also be a liar. That is why, when you do tell the public your ultimate truth, every comment must be earnest and from the heart. Because the public can sniff out a liar. And if lie, in whole or in part, and you will fall. Here again, Weiner failed the test:
Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story which was a hugely regrettable mistake.
Even this “confession” didn’t ring true. What congressman who is in his forties, and in his right mind (and who, by the way seeks to be the next mayor of New York) thinks it is funny to send a photo like that to a woman he doesn’t know?
Weiner was still trying to deflect criticism by referring to it as “a joke,” which it wasn't. This is especially true, given that it turned out to be more than a one-time lapse of judgment -- with more than one woman.
Rule 3. Be Civil. Don’t attack your attacker. And don’t attack the press. But Weiner did exactly that.
It is your responsibility and I want you to take it seriously that when you ask a question like that it is charged with implication and it is simply not fair. It is not fair to me. It’s not fair to my family. It’s not fair to that poor girl who’s now been besieged because of the implication....This is a Twitter hoax, a prank that was done. I was the victim of this. This poor girl was the victim of this. And to somehow draw a larger line to people who have done nothing wrong, these people that I follow or follow me have done nothing wrong and the implication should not be left with that.
This attack on Jonathan Karl of ABC News asking a question, and on the media in general, is particularly pernicious, given what we know now.
Rule 4. Be Transparent. No denial; just pure truth. It may have seemed to some of his friends—Jon Stewart, I’m talking to you—that Weiner was doing his best to answer the question on everyone’s mind, “What the hell were you thinking?”
But, I’m guessing, that after suffering the whiplash of this story, even his friends are still waiting for the answer to that question.
Rule 4. Be Brave. It is pretty hard to stand up in front of a camera and admit to the world that you made a horrible mistake, one that will humiliate you personally, devastate your family and quite possibly destroy your career. But the American public is surprisingly willing to embrace the humanity of a public figure who accepts responsibility for his mistakes. We are loath to forgive politicians who try to duck.
Rule 5. Be Apologetic. Acknowledge how the mistake affects friends, family, staff, co-workers and most importantly, constituents. Weiner apologized to all these folks and specifically to his wife; but the apology came too late and rang hollow.
Anthony Weiner built a Congressional career based on the emotional connection he had with his constituents. He was a bulldog. He went to bat on the issues that really mattered to his district: transportation infrastructure; lowering middle class taxes; affordable health care and the environment. But because of the Congressman’s failure to immediately come clean about his Twitter history, when the very first photo surfaced, Weiner himself became the issue, at a time when more important issues demand our attention. This rendered him ineffective as a leader. And that’s when he had to go.
Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.