Transparency, character and trust–What Rep. Weiner can teach

I’ve hesitated to comment on the Rep. Weiner situation, and not just because I’m afraid I’ll spell his name wrong. The lessons learned about the risks to reputation from the online communication are simply too obvious and very well addressed by others. Techcrunch published an article that discusses much better than I can the realities of “private” communication on channels such as Twitter. Here’s what they had to say among other things:

Techies are fascinated by the #Weiner story because it is the latest train wreck (and cautionary tale) of online communication. Sure most of you aren’t going around sending pictures of your crotches to people, but you’ve probably sent at least one DM or Facebook message or email or text or whatever today that you’d prefer the world didn’t see, because private communication is by definition meant to be private.

I’ve seen some comments lately about the downside of transparency. The upside of transparency is the same as the downside–nothing is invisible. What that simply means is that both the good and bad become accessible. And that means that people have greater ability to make judgments about people, companies and organizations based not on carefully manipulated public images, but on the reality. There is a downside to it in that all of us are ugly and evil to some degree. Transparency sooner or later will make that ugliness visible.

Rep. Weiner’s story has a lesson for us alright: you can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time…etc. I heard someone comment about why Tiger Woods had such a problem when his philandering became public–particularly in a culture where philandering doesn’t necessarily have the shock and horror quality that it used to. Tiger’s problems, they said, were because of the stark difference in his public persona and his true character. I could name a number of sports celebrities where stories about their off-court or off-field activities were an easy match for Tiger’s. The difference was in the image they cultivated.

Rep. Weiner’s true character is now becoming increasingly clear. Not just in his sadly, sick tweets. But in other online communication that is being revealed. This report in Bulldog reveals Rep. Weiner giving PR advice to one of his online correspondents:

Weiner emailed Lee on June 2, according to “I can have someone on my team call. [Yeah, my team is doing great. Ugh].” Just prior to that, on June 1, Weiner reportedly instructed Lee on the best way to stonewall reporters who were contacting her with questions. “The key is to have a short, thought out statement that tackles the top line questions and then refer people back to it. Have a couple of iterations of: ‘This is silly. Like so many others, I follow Rep. Weiner on Twitter. I don’t know him and have never met him. He briefly followed me and sent me a dm saying thank you for the follow. That’s it.’,” TMZ quotes Weiner as telling Lee, according to a NY Post report.

Assuming for the moment it is all true (and it is far more believable now given the other revelations) Rep. Weiner is a prime example of the “old school” of image manipulation. His comments will give those who think PR is nothing but a game of spin and lies the ammunition they seek about politicians and PR. But, if this is PR, I and most others I know in this business, want nothing to do with it.

The truth about Rep. Weiner and the real lesson here is that we want people in the halls of power to be people we can trust. There might be some forgiveness for clear lapse in character and judgment relating to sending those lewd and disgusting messages–if and only if there was a recognition of how they violated our standards of decency and behavior. There was and is no such admission or recognition. There is instead a message of “I’m sorry I got caught.” But there is no forgiveness nor can there be for the pattern of deception, lying and coverup that is being increasingly revealed. We really cannot bear a person who wants to go on pretending to be one of kind of person when their true character has been so clearly revealed.

That goes to the issue of public trust. Rep. Weiner is fighting hard to keep his seat and his political career. Others who have been cavalier with the truth (a recent president comes to mind) have shown that they perhaps can continue on, but the cloud of uncertainty and mistrust that hangs over them will never be removed, particularly if there is no clear recognition of the violation of trust that the deception represents. We Americans do not trust Congress. There are many reasons for that. But one reason is made clear by Rep. Weiner. Politicians often get their offices because they have outstanding chameleon characteristics. We reward them for their ability to fool some of the people all of the time, etc. But we distrust them when their ability to fool us is painfully revealed.

The new age of transparency reveals character and ultimately character still matters. Let those who willingly and knowingly are manipulating their image, creating perceptions very different from who they are, be warned. Transparency facilitated by the privacy issues of online communication helps put a premium on character. And that, overall, is a good thing.