Last night, Jon Stewart mocked his own ambivalence about going below the belt on close friend Rep. Anthony Weiner in a bit that epitomized the appeal of the scandal known as “Weinergate.” A Tom Brokaw “angel” appeared over one shoulder urging journalistic restraint, while a Don Rickles “devil” on the other side repeated, “But it’s about Weiner’s wiener!”
The story has it all – sex, partisan politics, Twitter… and endless opportunities for wordplay.
As Rep. Weiner himself admits, the jokes just write themselves as the story keeps, um, growing. But apart from pun-ditry, the frenzy over the crude photo that appeared oh-so-briefly on his Twitter feed offers lessons for handling sensitive matters. Because in this case, it’s Weiner’s own approach to media that helped turn a weekend story into a full-blown crisis.
Don’t flip-flop. No pun intended. Weiner, who is reportedly his own press advisor, started by laughing off the incident. When it escalated, he launched an ill-advised media talkathon. Then, he refused to answer the questions his own responses raised. A better strategy would have been a single press statement or interview that explained the situation to the best of his abilility.
Be brief. The normally press-savvy Weiner thought he could fall back on the “talking defense” that has made him a popular cable guest. But this is personal, and he’s already on the defensive. Too much accessibility without sticking to a prepared script nearly always makes it worse.
Stay calm. Blowing his stack and calling a CNN reporter a “jackass” only served to guarantee at least 12 more hours of the news cycle, while making him look stressed. Not a smart move.
Get the bad news out. This one’s the biggie. Weiner’s response that he couldn’t say “with certitude” that the tight-whiteys weren’t his set off a fresh barrage of speculation, with good reason. Bottom line, there are bound to be some very personal photos of this Congressional member floating around. If that’s the case, he should say so. It’s embarrassing, but not illegal. And if there’s more, he should decide what should be shared and get it all out in one sitting.
Think it through. By claiming he’d been hacked, but declining to have the FBI investigate, Weiner gave rise to speculation that he has something to hide. Evidence suggests his Twitter could have been hacked, but the use of that word by a U.S. representative triggers questions that he should have anticipated. But, sadly, he seems to be trying to improvise his way out of the mess.
The most ironic PR learning here is that the young woman in question, a 21-year-old Seattle college student, has handled herself masterfully. She put out a statement firmly denying any inappropriate contact with Weiner, explained the tongue-in-cheek “boyfriend” references on her Twitter feed, and doggedly stuck to her story, refusing all media interviews.
Of course she has the benefit of not being a married U.S. Representative from New York with a liberal bent, Clinton ties, and a big mouth. But I think a PR star is born. It’s too late for Weiner to follow her example, but he can still heed the advice of former roomie Stewart, who ended his segment by yelling, “Just tell the truth!”