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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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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