This morning’s Washington Post contains an article on John Edwards, the former Presidential candidate who was forced to admit he had cheated on his wife with a campaign staffer.
Edwards’ initial reaction to persistent questions about an affair were to brush them off, dismissing them as “tabloid trash, just full of lies”. [Note: the volume on this video is low, and the question about the National Enquirer allegations comes at around the 34-second mark]
But the tabloids dogged him on the issue; and once he’d reportedly been cornered by reporters in a hotel with the woman, the jig was up, and he had to come clean.
Students in my PR class – and students of PR everywhere – know that the key to crisis management is to:
• Tell the truth,
• Tell it first, and
• Tell it all.
A powerful person caught in bold-faced lies and running from the media makes for far juicier television than someone proactively admitting an affair. Just think back to New York Governor David Paterson’s admission of his and his wife’s extra-marital affairs, on the first day of his term. He raised it before anyone could discover it – and took all the fun out of the story.
It was a one-day issue – and he kept his job, to boot!
In his recent 90-minute interview with The Washington Post, reportedly his first since the immediate aftermath of his admission, Edwards claimed not to be “engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign.” His focus now, he says, is simply his “ability to help people. That's the only reason [his reputation] matters.”
Edwards’ words ring a little hollow – which is the problem with being publicly shown to be a liar.
In addition to claiming to be neither conducting nor interested in a PR campaign, the Washington Post article reveals that Edwards:
• “can't help but fret about how Washington and the country are getting on in his absence.”
• “worries about the concessions that may be made on health-care reform, which he was promoting more aggressively than anyone on the presidential campaign trail.”
• “worries about who will speak out for the country's neediest at a time when most attention is focused on the suddenly imperiled middle class.”
• believes that he “pushed Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a more progressive direction on issues including health care – Edwards was the first to propose an individual insurance mandate – and that the value of his run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.”
Edwards concludes with assurances that he meant everything he said in his fight against poverty, and that his stands were “real, 100 percent real… The stands were honest and sincere and idealistic.” The problem is that he sounded honest and sincere, if not idealistic, when he was urging us to ignore the tabloids and their “trash, just full of lies”.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Edwards’ quotes in the Washington Post interview sound much, to me, like the beginnings of an image rehabilitation (i.e. PR) campaign.
But let’s assume he’s telling the truth about only wanting to regain influence so that he can use it to help people – can he do it? Maybe, but it’ll be a long road. Credibility is fundamental to any PR campaign; when you’ve shot your own credibility, it’s a long, steep climb back.
In the world of reputation management, the smart money’s on David Paterson’s rip-off-the-bandage approach. It’ll sting for a few minutes, but then it’s done… and you won’t spend the rest of your career paying for it.
[NOTE: The original version of this post contained an error in the timeline of Edwards' withdrawal from the Presidential race; he had already withdrawn from the race when the affair was made public. I apologize for the error.]