A special guest column by ASU Communication Professor Kelly M. McDonald, Ph.D.
Can a leader survive accusations of impropriety? It does not take long to find examples around us from civic and public life where leaders soar like a Phoenix and overcome challenges they face, as well as those who fly too close to the sun and burn out. The recent incident involving Republican Arizona State Senator Scott Bundgaard reveals some powerful lessons in how leaders should not respond to crises that threaten their personal and professional standing.
Following a Phoenix charity event last month, State Senator Bundgaard was questioned by Department of Public Safety Officers when they responded to a call reporting a man pulling a woman out of a vehicle on the median of a state highway. Both Bundgaard and his now ex-girlfriend presented with minor injuries, presumed to be from a scuffle between them. While each was detained at the scene, Bundgaard avoided arrest because of his immunity granted while the legislature is in session, whereas his then-girlfriend was booked into a Maricopa County Jail on one count of assault. (Bundgaard was first elected to the state legislature in 1994, he worked in the private sector before recently returning to elected office.)
First, politicians and business leaders are not in the same category of public figure as Hollywood celebrities. P.T. Barnum’s old saw that “All publicity is good publicity” even has its limits in Hollywood as Charlie Sheen recently discovered. Bundgaard’s series of public statements and rounds of local media interviews did not improve his public standing but rather served to undermine public confidence in his judgment and character as he repeatedly disparaged his ex-girlfriend’s character and conduct. Genuine contrition, when an apology is needed, is far more effective than attacking your accuser or revealing excess details which prolong the life cycle of a story’s negative coverage.
Second, consistency matters. If you choose to speak out and speak up when confronted with accusations of misdeeds, Bundgaard’s continued elaborations on his story did not resonate with integrity or consistency with audiences. Being older than his then girlfriend, a supposed business and political leader with sound judgment and reasoned disposition, his statements seemed venal and were not supported by records released by law enforcement. The lesson is that if you are appealing to external validation for your claims, the evidence should actually support your case and at the very least you need to be consistent with yourself; act and speak in a manner consistent with your character and expectations.
Finally, the court of public opinion matters. Leaders cannot lead without followers to support and believe in their program and person. Whether, as he claims, Bundgaard did not evoke his legislative immunity from arrest during Arizona’s legislative session is almost beside the point. The fact his ex-girlfriend was arrested and booked and he was not revealed an inconsistency in treatment. As the accused, Bundgaard’s claims to not to have evoked his immunity seem self-serving, whereas law enforcement statements to the contrary do not appear self-interested. As the public seeks to make sense of the events, authoritative, unbiased and credible sources hold more weight than statements of self-interest.
Former President Bill Clinton was able to effectively argue in his 1998 televised address to the nation on the House impeachment trial over his statements concerning his extra-marital affair that “Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.” His approval rating, as measured by the Gallup organization, improved in less than a month following the speech, and reached their peak of 73% by mid-December 1998.
Senator Bundgaard has been decidedly less successful than the former President pleading his case in the weeks since his altercation. It is important to note that while a decision is still pending by the City Prosecutor’s office on whether to pursue domestic violence related charges; he has not been formally charged — much less convicted.
The reservoir of good will in public opinion is challenging to fill and even more challenging to replenish once serious accusations of misdeeds or even public missteps draw down that level.