The magic behind repairing politicians’ public image
By Meagan McGinnes
Politicians are placed on a pedestal of morals, ethics, values and patriotism. Because of the influence and power they hold, mistakes are not an option.
“A good politician has three common traits that give them a source of credibility: expertise, sincerity and charisma,” said Arhlene Flowers, assistant professor of Integrated Marketing Communications at Ithaca College. “It takes years to create a political image but almost a nanosecond for it to dissolve.”
It seems now more than ever, the press is breaking scandals involving major political figures. We cannot trust even those who are supposed to be representing the population in government to be role models. It is this personal deception that makes it more complicated for politicians to recover and cleanse their images after a scandal.
Juan Arroyo, assistant professor of comparative politics at IC, linked these scandals to stains on his children’s shirts. “Removing the stain depends on two things: the type of stain and the quality of the shirt beforehand,” he said.
Public relations is the politician’s bleach. Just as bleach can make an already-clean shirt seem brighter, as well as remove tough spots from a dirty shirt, PR can build a clean and marketable public figure and minimize the damage of a disgraced one. Like bleach, public relations is merely a tool in the “cleansing” process. It is up to the individual to use it wisely.
After becoming governor of New York state, Eliot Spitzer was caught with his pants down as a patron of an illegal prostitution ring. Previously, Spitzer was an advocate against prostitution.
“He was someone who seemed to be the holder of all things good,” Flowers said.
This scandal made it seem that Spitzer thought of himself as being above the law and the rules of the governed. Spitzer, however, has been working to cleanse his image since this scandal. He still has his wife by his side, has hired Howard Rubenstein to handle all of his public relations, and is getting back into the political world. Spitzer is now writing for high profile outlets on issues he knows well: financial scandals and other serious events.
John Edwards, however, is an example of a political figure that has not used the public relations tool well. A former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Edwards revealed this year he had had an affair with aide Rielle Hunter and fathered a child out of wedlock, all while his wife was fighting metastatic breast cancer. Even after previously admitting to the affair, Edwards denied being the father of the child in 2006. On Jan. 1, 2010, Edwards issued a press release finally admitting that the child is his.
Andrew Young, Edward’s campaign aide, released a book called The Politician to detail the affair. Young originally claimed that he, not Edwards, was the child’s father, but later retracted that statement. He claims Edwards pressured him to accept responsibility on his behalf. Young wrote that Edwards once calmed his anxious mistress by promising he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York, with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band, after his wife died.
“He is morally compromised,” Arroyo said. “His professional reputation is now intertwined with his spiraling personal life.”
Because he betrayed his wife when she was in such a vulnerable position and also lied repeatedly, both Arroyo and Flowers doubt that he will get back into office. This stain is too deep to be completely removed.
“In some cases the public can have a short-term memory, but a long-term memory on others,” Flowers said.
In Spitzer’s case, PR may be an effective use of bleach to remove the stains of his prostitute scandal. It is far less likely for Edwards, but only time can truly tell. Rebuilding a positive image can take years.
As both Flowers and Arroyo said, PR is a process that takes time, patience and communication, in the same way that cleaning clothes is also a process. Deep stains may take multiple washes and bleaching in order to completely remove them, and sometimes, they ruin clothing permanently. There is only so much grime and dirt that bleach can combat. There is no magic solution and, unfortunately for politicians who find themselves entrenched in enormous scandals, neither is public relations.
Meagan McGinnes is a freshman journalism major who needs a PR guy to spin her love for Nickelback into something cool and respectable. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.