Anthony Weiner's Failed Image Repair Effort
A photograph of a man in underwear appeared on Congressman Anthony Weiner's Twitter account on May 27, 2011. Initially he claimed that his account had been hacked. He dodged questions and claimed that this event was being investigated—although it turned out that neither the capital police nor the FBI had been notified of this by Weiner. He denied posting the photograph and avoided questions about whether it was actually a photograph of him (CNN, 2011). On June 7, he held a press conference to confess his wrongdoing.
Image Repair Effort
Weiner offered several instances of mortification in this statement (2011). He admitted that he had engaged in wrongdoing:
Over the past few years, I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email, and occasionally on the phone with women I had met online. I have exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years.
He characterized his behavior as “inappropriate,” and most people would agree that when someone who is married exchanges “explicit” messages and photos with multiple people, that is offensive. Weiner also accepted blame for his behavior:
I'd like to . . . take full responsibility for my actions. At the outset, I'd like to make it clear that I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I'm deeply sorry. I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media.
He not only confessed to inappropriate behavior; he also acknowledged that he had not been honest about it—in other words, he admitted that he lied about these events. Weiner also said he was sorry, expressed regret, and apologized for the harm he did to several people:
I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, Huma, and our family, and my constituents, my friends, supporters and staff.
This woman [Gennette Cordova] was unwittingly dragged into this and bears absolutely no responsibility. I am so sorry to have disrupted her life in this way.
I haven't told the truth, and I've done things I deeply regret. I brought pain to people I care about the most and the people who believed in me, and for that I'm deeply sorry. I apologize to my wife and our families, as well as to our friends and supporters. I'm deeply ashamed of my terrible judgment and actions. These statements—acknowledging harm to others, expressing regret, and apologizing—are all instances of mortification.
His statement included two other relatively minor strategies. Weiner attempted to minimize his transgressions: “For the most part, these relation—communications took place before my marriage, though some have sadly took place after.” Surely this behavior would appear even worse for someone who was married; his offensive behavior continued after his wedding. Weiner also differentiated his behavior from other, more offensive behavior: “To be clear, I have never met these any of these women or had physical relationships at any time.” Messages and photos are less offensive than illicit physical contact.
The mortification came too late to help his image very much: The fact that he lied initially undermined his image repair. If Weiner had come clean at the very beginning, his use of mortification might have worked better. The basic ideas—admitting wrong doing, expressing regret, apologizing for inappropriate behavior—were well chosen, but they came too late, after he lied. The attempt at minimization was ill chosen—saying part of his offensive behavior occurred before his marriage means some of it occurred afterward. Differentiation may have helped a bit, but outrage over his lies meant that his image was still damaged. Furthermore, many people may have found his behavior inexplicable. You may deplore the actions of a bank robber or an affair by an adulterer, but most people understand the idea of trying to obtain money or have sex. Why Weiner sent pictures and messages is difficult to understand and, accordingly, more difficult to forgive. What was he thinking?
Politics is inherently partisan, competitive, and newsworthy. Accordingly, image repair is an important aspect of this context. This chapter offers new case studies of successful (Vitter) and unsuccessful (Weiner) image repair. Politicians can be counted on to defend themselves and their policies (for the latter, see Benoit, 2007). Political scandal will endure, and work on this should continue.