Presumably you haven’t been a serial sexter, and you’re not running for mayor of New York. You haven’t quit your job as a member of Congress, apologized to your wife, gone through therapy, resumed sexting, and then restarted your political career. If you had done all those things and asked me, an expert on screwing up, what to do…
I’d tell you to quit. Quit right now. Find a shrink who will coauthor a book on sexual addiction.
But wait. You’re not quitting just yet? Then here’s what I’d tell you. (You’ll find more detailed advice in new edition of my book, Thank You for Arguing.) It applies directly to any kind of public mistake, as well as most private ones.
Our first instinct in a screw-up is to get defensive—or, in Weiner’s miserable case, to cover up until it’s too late. But in many cases, a mistake can actually become an opportunity to improve your reputation. It’s a chance to talk about your values. I’d tell Weiner to describe himself as a man who has applied great discipline to his public life, and that drive has opened cracks in his private life. He now knows that therapy isn’t enough. He must apply that same self-control to every part of his life.
Every PR person will tell you this, for good reason. Get all the news out. All of it. And put it in a personal context. “I have made this mistake, and I made it again. Here are the sordid details. I am revealing everything so that you know how I violated my own code, and so that I can explain how I’m working to keep it from happening again.” The latest news about Weiner didn’t come from Weiner. Shame on him—literally.
Weiner should have given a solid reason for staying in the race, and that reason should be New York’s future. He should paint a stirring picture of a bright and shining city, and add that that future is too important to abandon to his mistakes. Part of that future, of course, needs to offer convincing proof that those mistakes won’t happen again. Maybe his wife will agree to screen all his private emails. In any case, the real future is New York, with Weiner leading the way.
That’s what rhetoricians call character, the leader’s projected image. Ultimately screw-ups are all about ethos. Your job, rhetorically speaking is not just to recover your reputation but to enhance it. To come out with a better, shinier, more trustworthy and likable image than you had before the scandal. Look at Obama after the Jeremiah Wright incident, or—to go way back—Richard Nixon during the Checkers affair.
My advice has helped numerous corporate clients and individuals. Would it save Weiner? Frankly, I doubt it. Screw up once, shame on you, but we can get past it. Screw up twice—the same sordid screw-up—and, well, you might get a book deal.