Many readers of this blog hail from outside the U.S., and you might be (blessedly) unaware of the controversy surrounding long-time Congressman Anthony Weiner, who has been caught sending lewd photos of himself on Twitter and other digital means to women who are not his wife. (And he does have a wife.) It’s been a spectacle fit for late-night comedians who have lampooned Weiner’s Pickle and made other equally high-brow jokes about the Congressman’s situation. But as digital marketers, are there lessons to be learned for us?
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Long-time readers of this blog know that I don’t skew to political issues in these pages. I am an extreme moderate in my politics, usually bemoaning how neither party does anything according to the facts of the situation rather than their ideologies, so Congressman Weiner, who is a strong voice for liberal Democrats, was never someone that had a style that I appreciated. He is, by various turns, feisty, combative, and partisan, which he has every right to be. In fact, although that might not be my cup of tea, he has been until now a very savvy user of new media, amassing thousands of Twitter followers with his pugnacious style of tweaking those on the other side.
As a brand, Weiner has been focused, he has been consistently on message, and he has been effective. Until now.
I’ll leave it to the psychologists as to why a man in Weiner’s position would engage in such risky digital behavior. Obviously, the first lesson for marketers is that if you are going to be caught literally with your pants down, Twitter is not your best venue. But what are the real lessons here?
- Don’t lie about what happened. Over and over we’ve seen that the cover-up is worse than the crime, and that certainly seems to be the case here. I admit to being hopelessly old-fashioned about sexting and other ways that people nowadays carry on their “relationships,” but I know in my aging heart that a lot of people would have given Weiner a pass if he’d just come out at the start and said, “Yeah, that is a photo of me and it was a stupid thing to do.” He could have apologized publicly to his new wife and vowed to have better judgment. I don’t know if it would have been a one-day story, but at least the story would have been about his behavior and not about his credibility. As it is, the news media is having a field day playing Weiner’s fervent denials from last week, exposing yet another character flaw. I personally take no glee in seeing this poor man flayed in public, whether I was a fan or not–he’s still a human being. But the bigger they are, the more people will help them fall, and pile on afterward. I know that “don’t lie” is an obvious point, but marketers are constantly in positions where someone says something embarrassing about their brands. Instead of being immediately combative, we must look to grains of truth in what is said and discuss them openly so that we can change as public perceptions change.
- Be accountable to others. Anyone can make a mistake in the way that they use digital media, but a long-standing pattern of risky behavior can only survive if you are doing it in secret. Does it make sense for high-profile employees to have their social media accounts monitored by others? Many religious leaders have long urged their followers to join small groups that share their lives with each other to be accountable in their actions large and small. Billy Graham always made sure he was never alone in a room with a woman who was not his wife. Should marketers be trying to set up our own accountability groups in digital media, with shared accounts so that secrets can’t pervade the brand space? I don’t know whether this should be voluntary or whether brands should start insisting on this, but the brands stand to be hurt far more by rogue behavior from high-profile employees than they ever were by the indiscretions of celebrity spokespersons. I’m not sure that I know what to do, but we need to start talking about this.
- Realize that there are no truly private digital places. In school, they often talk about thinking before you act, because you don’t want a bad decision to become part of your permanent record. These days, we tell teenagers to think twice about what they post on social media because you don’t know who will eventually see it. I continually advise clients to be up-front about their identities on social media–no tricky competitor-bashing stuff posted on that anonymous handle. All of this counsel revolves around the fact that anything stored digitally can be shared publicly. If you e-mail it, or store it on your company laptop, or post it on social media (even in private messages), you are counting on other parties to keep your secrets. Your secrets might not be lewd photos (at least I hope not), but your trade secrets, your confidential speculation about competitors, your indiscreet comments about a co-worker–the list goes on and on–are all fodder to be “outed” by whomever has access to it. Congressman Weiner found himself outed by women whose sharing of his photos put the lie to his denials about the Twitter flap, even though he did not post them on social media. Even if you store information on your private laptop or phone, you are trusting whomever has access to the backups, or you are trusting whomever finds the device when you lose it. Stop telling yourself that you have your information secured. Be willing to admit that what you record can be shared by people who do not have your best interests at heart. Then ask yourself how that changes what you decide to record.
The Internet is the greatest investigative journalism force in the history of the world. People whom the news media would never care about can be outed in social media. Congressman Weiner has learned that behavior that is not (to my knowledge) criminal (and would never be investigated by the government) can bring you low in the court of public opinion.
Brands watching (or worse judging and laughing at) the Weiner saga might remind themselves that “There before the grace of God go I.” Who among us hasn’t done something that we’d like to stay hidden? With digital media, the onus on your good behavior is higher than ever because the ability to prove that you did it trumps whatever ability you have to lie. Smooth talkers can’t evade the digital evidence, try as they might.
If you are doing something that would be embarrassing if found out, here is your big chance to stop. If you continue to tell yourself that you won’t be found out, you might be right, but the bigger you are, the more successful you are, and the more famous you are, as a person or as a brand, the more likely that someone, someday is going to call you on this bad behavior. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.