Politicians along with others who are in the public eye such as athletes, entertainers, etc... need to know how to properly respond to a social media crisis or scandal. During the past two weeks, Congressman Anthony Weiner has been embroiled in a self-inflicted social media scandal. For the past several years, Mr. Weiner has been utilizing social media to allegedly interact inappropriately with others online. Not only is Mr. Weiner an elected U.S. Congressman, but he is also married and his wife is pregnant.
Politicians in the United States have been entangled in sex scandals since our country's birth and Mr. Weiner will not be the last elected official to become involved in this type of crisis. However, what sets this scandal apart from previous political sex scandals is that Mr. Weiner has left little to the imagination. Previously, the public could only imagine what had occurred. During President Clinton's sex scandal the main piece of evidence of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was her stained blue dress. Through DNA testing it was proven that President Clinton was the source of the stain on the blue dress. Even with this evidence there were still a lot of unanswered questions.
If a politician becomes tangled in a Social Media Crisis or Scandal these are some of the steps that should be taken in no particular order:
1. Engage a lawyer. The most important member of a crisis management team is one's legal counsel. A lawyer will be able to advise if there is any civil or criminal liability. It appears that Mr. Weiner waited four days before hiring an attorney to advise him. This is a lifetime in the Social Media Age.
2. Be open and honest with your attorney. A lawyer(s) may be the only person whom a politician may fully trust due to the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege. In addition, an attorney must know all the facts in order to determine the best course of action. I don't know if Mr. Weiner was honest with his lawyer because it allegedly took a week between the time that he hired a lawyer and he publicly admitted to acting what has been deemed inappropriate towards others online.
3. Assess the political, professional, and personal issues that are involved. Every crisis has different facts and no two situations are exactly alike. Since Mr. Weiner's scandal first became public, it seems as though he has been "winging" his responses. At first, Mr. Weiner stated that his Twitter account was hacked and that it was a prank; then he acted indignant towards the media; then he tried to be calm and offered interviews around the clock; then he admitted he sent a photograph of himself in his underwear to a young woman after Andrew Breitbart publicly stated he had more evidence about the matter; then he stated he wasn't resigning from Congress; then a self-taken photograph of Mr. Weiner's gentials appeared online; then the police investigated Mr. Weiner's online interactions with a 17-year old; then several members of the Democratic leadership called for his resignation; then Mr. Weiner stated that he will be asking for a leave of Congress to seek treatment; and now more images of Mr. Weiner are appearing online.
4. Assemble your crisis management team. After an attorney has determined what type of legal liability issues are involved the response team may be assembled.
5. Create and implement a crisis management response. The response and its implementation will depend upon the situation. As of this writing, it appears that Mr. Weiner may not have any legal liability for his online behavior. However, as more evidence comes to light that may change and it is too soon to determine what if any U.S. House Ethics Rules have been broken.
6. Figure out how to address your political staff. Some staff members may need to know the truth due to the nature of their position while others do not. Remember the quote from Animal Farm, "[s]ome animals are more equal than others."
7. Do not lie to the American public. The American public is very forgiving. President Clinton's initial reaction regarding the publicity surrounding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was to cover it up. Mr. Clinton most likely had no idea that Ms. Lewinsky had undeniable proof of a relationship between them. Even though the scandal did not cost Mr. Clinton his office, it created great embarrassment for himself and his family and it damaged his legacy. In addition, he lost his law license because of the matter.
8. Batten down the hatches. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Be prepared for any possible scenario.
9. Reassess the situation continuously. Your position may become untenable as more facts emerge.
10. Determine whether you will fight to keep your seat or if you will resign. Becoming a U.S. Senator or Congressman is not a right but a privilege. Many members of Congress are type A personalities since there are only 535 of these positions and every seat is highly coveted. Therefore, resigning may only occur when there are no other viable options.
The bottom line is that it is important to be proactive and not reactive. If Mr. Weiner would have handled his social media scandal differently it may have already blown over. However, his continuing missteps have only made the situation worse.
To learn how to respond to a political crisis or scandal in the Social Media Age you may contact me at www.shearlaw.com.
Copyright 2011 by the Law Office of Bradley S. Shear, LLC. All rights reserved.