Clear Comm Consulting

Handling Scandal and How History Repeats Itself

Jun 30, 2009

Watching South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford explain his “mystery trip” to Argentina should bring back lots of memories for you. No, not because you have secretly run off to South America on a trip which led to your public downfall — but because it follows a very well-worn path we have seen before from those who have trouble explaining bad behavior. Along the way, there are lessons for all of us who have a public image or are in charge of managing someone else’s public image. (And, in case it hasn’t struck you lately, we’re ALL in the business of managing a public image!)

The Lie: The uncontrollable temptation for those in the throes of some very bad decision making is, almost without fail, to lie about it. Yikes! For anyone who is contemplating that course of action they need hear just one thing: “If you thought the first problem was a big one, just wait. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Mark Sanford would have had some very difficult times with his family, friends and supporters had he been honest about the problems in his private life, but now, because of The Lie, it has become the defining moment for his public life. He guaranteed his obituary will, in the first few sentences, mention the affair and his decision to sneak away to Argentina. The Lie trumps everything else, takes center stage and is completely self-inflicted!

How do otherwise bright people and organizations (Richard Nixon/Bill Clinton/John Edwards/The Catholic Church, etc.) go down this same path?

A Closed Circle: Often the decisions are being made in a very small, closed circle. The Blind Mice can’t see the damage they are doing to themselves. The thinking goes something like this: “Oh this is so terrible we have to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t get out!” Along the way, by keeping it quiet and lying about it, you create a bigger, more damaging problem.

By all current accounts, Mark Sanford consulted a committee of one in this situation — and he gave himself very bad advice. For others it is a small group of loyalists who lead the charge off the cliff. Either way, the results are far worse than the original sin.

The Partial Truth Solution: After The Lie strategy starts to fall apart a favorite “next step” for people in this situation is telling a portion of the truth. Wrong again. In this case Sanford told reporters and others he hadn’t gone off to the Appalachian Trail but just needed to get away and took a trip out of the country. By the time you get to this step, you start to trip over yourself trying to figure out which lie you’re running with and you start to sound like a serial liar!

Rip Off The Bandage: The short answer for what we’ve seen in the Sanford case and in many others before him is Fess Up! Wow the pain is going to be very real in those first few days, but it will fade and you will be known as someone who faces up to his or her problems. Unless you are planning to never need a person to believe you anytime in the future, follow the truthful path and know you are doing the right thing in the long run. Besides, you’ll sleep a lot better!

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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