Is It Time For a New PR Approach To Sex Scandals?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 14, 2012 – 2:02 PM

General David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director late last week, following revelations of a sexual affair, immediately triggered questions about whether his girlfriend had access to classified information and the affair was temporarily covered up to aid President Obama’s re-election bid.

General David Petraeus, who resigned late last week.

The scandal is just the latest in a long line of recent sex scandals that go well beyond ordinary marital infidelity. Consider these recent cases:

  1. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reputation was severely damaged after admitting in 2011 that he had fathered a child with a member of his domestic staff 14 years earlier.
  2. New York Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned after accidentally tweeting a photo of himself in his underwear to a woman he had never met before. He later admitted that he had sent photos of himself to numerous women.
  3. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford became a laughingstock in 2009 after disappearing from his state for days. Even his aides didn’t know where he was; one claimed he was off hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later admitted that he had flown to Argentina to visit his lover.
  4. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards cheated on his cancer-stricken wife while running for president in 2008. He fathered a daughter with the woman, Rielle Hunter, but denied the child was his for more than a year.
  5. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 after admitting that he had hired a prostitute on numerous occasions. The woman later claimed that Spitzer didn’t want to wear a condom during sex.
  6. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter admitted to cheating with a prostitute after being exposed in the “DC Madam” scandal in 2007. He tearfully admitted that he had sinned during a televised press conference as his tearful wife stood next to him.

Former Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee John Edwards

All of those cases were rather sordid—a love child here, a prostitute there; a non-existent hike on a trail here, a rogue tweet there.

So all of that got me thinking: Given that Americans are so used to seeing rather extraordinary sex scandals on their televisions, are they less likely to be shocked by ordinary acts of marital infidelity?

And if so, does that mean that public figures who cheat in a rather ordinary manner can hang onto their offices and their reputations more easily?

I’m increasingly convinced that at some point soon, politicians caught cheating on their spouses will throw away the old PR playbook of holding a tearful press conference, admitting great sin, and pledging to be a better person. Instead, I suspect that otherwise-respected politicians will be able to turn to the camera during the heat of their crisis and say:

“Half of marriages in America fail. Many others aren’t perfect. This is a personal matter between me and my wife. I’ve never claimed to be a perfect man, and my flaws as a husband are relevant only to her and our children, not to you. So to the media, I say ‘grow up.’ This is a personal matter, this isn’t your business, and I don’t intend to say another word about it.”


Newt Gingrich used a similar approach during a primary debate last year, when he scolded CNN anchor John King for asking a question about a previous marriage:

The bottom line is that the recent rash of sordid sex scandals makes the less sordid ones seem almost mundane. And people caught in the spotlight for rather straightforward human failings may be able to push back against media scrutiny harder—and more effectively—than they were able to just a decade ago.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (11)

  1. By Mary Fletcher Jones:

    On one hand, I’m inclined to agree. A change of tactics in many cases is needed. After all, 50% of husbands and almost 50% of wives do engage in an extramarital affair. So, when the a public figure submit a tearful confession of “sin,” that can’t go down very well with the people who probably understand on some level.

    The problem, for me, comes into it with govt. figures for whom the affair might mean misconduct beyond the act of sex. And even then I don’t know if it’s a public right to know area or not. I’m just not sure.

    With President Clinton, for example, he was having a relationship with a much younger subordinate, which is a misuse of that kind of authority (true in any boss/employee dynamic). Sure, she was a consenting adult but that just isn’t done in the workplace. Somebody should have nipped that in the bud before it became an impeachment issue, instead of letting it be a locker room joke.

    With Gen. Petraeus, the issue is did she have unauthorized access to classified material. She appealed to his vanity and blinded him to the risks. But it’s not like there weren’t people around who could have said something, and attempted to forestall calamity. She raised lots of red flags. Well, maybe they did try.

    With others it might be: were they engaging in the activity on govt. time or with govt. resources (such as in the case of a general sending thousands of emails).

    What people do on their own time between consenting adults is basically their own business. They made the (very human) mistake of bringing it into the workplace. I think it’s tragic that their careers will suffer this much as a result.

  2. By Julia Stewart:

    Hi Brad – I think the issue isn’t that Gen. Patraeus is the subject of a sex scandal per se, it’s that he was in a very public, very delicate job. His trustworthiness, and hence his ability to do his job, have been blown. I can’t imagine how he could effectively lead the CIA and its stakeholder relations now. If Ms. Broadwell in fact received classified materials, then he’s also broken the law and may have jeopardized national security. Public life demands extraordinary personal discipline.

  3. By Instapundit » Blog Archive » IS IT TIME FOR a new PR approach to sex scandals?…:

    […] IS IT TIME FOR a new PR approach to sex scandals? […]

  4. By Pete:

    I think you’re on to something. Look at Europe and how nonplussed their electorate is about their politicians’ dalliances. I’m guessing that’s where the U.S. is headed. Makes sense to be prepared and adapt from reputational perspective.

  5. By AD-RtR/OS!:

    If the sexcapades of public figures is something the media needs to speak about, then media sex-lives should be fair game too; as should their tax returns, property records, stock investments, etc.
    What’s good for the goose……

  6. By SSG Christopher Whitaker:

    I think it’s time for those in positions of authority to suffer more significant punishment for their sexual scandals. Too often they get away with little more than a finger wag, regardless of their level of offense. From an NCO’s perspective, where a sexual misconduct indictment means the end of one’s career, I found it profoundly offensive and discouraging that a General and CIA director merely resigns and escapes scott-free.

  7. By R.C.:

    Or, you could go the other way.

    For an unmarried person a dalliance is no crime.

    But for a married person it is, after all, a breach of contract at minimum, inasmuch as marriage is a covenant (which is at least a contract, from the state point of view, but from a holistic perspective is more than than, since contracts cover only an exchange of goods and services, whereas a covenant exchanges persons and creates family bonds).

    And given the difficulties caused by broken homes and the problems (jail, mental illness, lower income, lower life expectancy) experienced by children of broken homes, there is certainly what is called “a compelling state interest.”

    I submit that it is more civilized that a married person who commits adultery spend some jail time and pay a fine, but these can be deferred at the joint agreement of the judge and the spouse. And, that an unmarried person who becomes sexually involved with a married person spends some jail time and pays a fine, either of which can be deferred by the judge. And that deferred fines or jail time are automatically re-imposed for a further offense unless deferred again, et cetera.

    I speak as someone who would not, for example, agree with outlawing consensual homosexual acts, and who is vaguely in favor of marijuana legalization.

    But contracts are the state’s proper business, and there is a compelling state interest, and while it may be true that adultery is always a symptom, not the core problem, maybe if people weren’t so distracted by the escapism of enjoying the symptom, they’d buckle down and work out the core problem. And while the threat of jail or fines wouldn’t deter some, it would deter others. Not all of the time, but some of the time.

    The country would be better off.

  8. By Isab:

    The more you increase the penalties for adultery, the greater the possibility that people who want a career in the government or the military, will never get married at all.

    Young sucessful men are staying away from the altar in droves because they know they will lose their shirts in a divorce, even if the woman is the one who is cheating. Sadly, in this country you can pretty much do sexually anything you want to, as long as you never get married. Legislating morality has never worked, and it is not going to start working now.

  9. By Jim:

    One takes very few vows in a lifetime. Marriage is one. Does violating it reflect on a person’s trustworthiness, or view of other vows (e.g., to uphold their office)? I think so.

  10. By Monica Miller Rodgers:

    I don’t believe those in the limelight have the luxury to tell the media “mind your own business.” These politicians and others in high-profile positions are held to a higher expectation, and when the fail, they don’t just fail themselves or their families – they fail countless people who depend on them for leadership. Therefore, I believe these people must expect a certain amount of openness into their personal lives. This turn of the tide would be equivalent to “no comment,” which is never advisable.

  11. By Patrick:

    The entire premise of this article is flawed for one basic and simple reason. Our politicians and leaders behave this way because the people of this country betray their ethics and make excuses for why the politician’s unethical act is somehow less significant just because a large number of other people also did it? Do you hear how ridiculous you sound when you engage in “circling the wagons” around any member of any political party, and that behavior hurts everyone regardless of their politics. If every man in this country committed adultery, do any of you think that your wives would view your disgusting act as being any less deplorable? When you make excuses for unethical behavior, YOU VALIDATE IT!! If you wouldn’t accept that behavior coming from your own children, how dare you prop up these offenders into positions of power that then grant them influence over every single other american family. Furthermore, how dare any of these politicians act as if they should somehow be spared any judgement for their unethical behavior. These people ask us for the privilege to hold these offices of power, it is not their birth-rite, it is not their entitlement, and it is certainly not an inheritance to be passed down from family member to family member. These individuals are asking to be leaders of men, yet they can’t even honor the sanctity of their marriages. To be a leader you must first lead by example and second never ask any of your subordinates to do anything that you wouldn’t first do yourself. They have proven over and over and over again that they are incapable of setting such a positive example, so, WHY DO WE KEEP VOTING THEM IN CYCLE AFTER CYCLE? GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. THE DEFINITION OF INSANITY IS DOING THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AND EXPECTING DIFFERENT RESULTS. CHANGE YOUR WAYS BEFORE YOUR WAYS CHANGE YOU, AND BRING THE REST OF US DOWN TOO.

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