When Humpty Dumpty Falls Off The Wall, You Can’t Put Him Together Again.
By Thomas J. Roach
Last year was a stern reminder about the relationship between public relations and truth. A lot can be accomplished with PR strategies and tactics, but when Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
We learned in 2015 that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bill Cosby, Pete Rose and some urban police departments will never recover from damage to their reputations. While each had a different problem, all were problems of reputation, and all were complicated by a loss of trust.
Gov. Christie looked like one of two or three frontrunners for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Then his staff members closed down part of the George Washington Bridge apparently to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for not supporting Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election. The story erupted into national media in 2014, and in 2015 the plot was spelled out in an indictement of operatives linked to Christie.
Christie was between a rock and a hard place. Admitting to endangering lives and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of commuters over a petty political squabble would damage his chances of winning the presidential nomination, but denying responsibility for the problem could add untrustworthiness to the story. Christie chose the denial.
Christie artfully employed his public relations strategy of ordering an investigation, which cleared him of wrongdoing. The report, however, was generally seen as a cover-up, taking Christie’s nomination chances from bad to worse.
The longer the denial and attempted cover-up kept the story in the news the more his trustworthiness was undermined. He should have admitted chicanery and apologized. His campaign was over the day the story made national news; he should have accepted it and bowed out early.
Bill Cosby also had a previous problem that became insurmountable in 2015. There is no salvaging your career when more than 50 women accuse you of sexual misconduct including claims that they were drugged and raped.
Cosby’s career was over the minute this became national news. Like Christie, Cosby attempted to deny the charges, thus keeping them in the news. No amount of PR pixie dust can fix this problem. Cosby’s best option was to apologize for as much of criminal activity as his lawyers would allow and bow out of sight.
Baseball fans wanted Pete Rose to say it isn’t so, but years of evidence made it impossible to deny that he had been betting on games, even on his own team when he was manager. While his records are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he is denied membership. To allow Rose membership would degrade the institution.
Rose refuses to accept this, and has been using progressively more effective public relations strategies. For years he denied gambling, and now, finally, he is expressing remorse. The problem is that gambling and managing a baseball team don’t mix. Doesn’t matter how you frame it, Pete. Not fixable.
The police department credibility problem started most dramatically with Ferguson, Mo., and is being played out prominently currently in Chicago and Baltimore. Like the public figures mentioned above, several urban police departments have two problems. The first is behavior the public deems unacceptable, some of it documented on video, and the second is their attempts to cover-up and deny the problems.
Just like Watergate and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the policing problem in Chicago cannot be contained. Compromised credibility is the secondary problem created by the attempt to mitigate the damage of the first problem, but the secondary problem is worse. Community groups are now demanding the resignation of Chicago’s mayor.
There is a simple, rather obvious lesson in all this. Few issues in public debate have absolute answers. The trustworthiness of the speaker therefore is more important than the argument. Once a speaker has demonstrated that he or she cannot be trusted, then it doesn’t matter how logical or emotionally provocative their arguments are, they will be discounted.
No matter how repulsive it may seem at the time, admitting the truth is almost always preferable to denying it.