Strategic communication lessons from Weinergate

Once a crisis occurs, the textbook course of action is to take responsibility for your actions by telling the truth, apologizing sincerely, and taking steps to correct the problem and make amends. Rep. Weiner not only failed to tell the truth – and accept responsibility – when the first photos were released in the media, he also seemed to relish in a cat-and-mouse game of double entendres when interviewed by reporters.

When Rep. Weiner joked about whether or not the now infamous underwear photo was really him – or not – with mostly male political pundits and reporters, he reminded many of us (especially women) of an immature schoolboy telling dirty jokes that only he appreciated. If more women reporters had been involved at the beginning in questioning Rep. Weiner, the dialogue may have unfolded differently (although there is at least one example of the congressman joking just as inappropriately with a female reporter.)

What is even more perplexing to those of us who study political communication is that today’s politicians need to learn to be adept communicators in getting their message out to voters in a variety of mediums. Rep. Weiner seemed to have those communication skills, until he tried to manage this crisis. Where were his advisers? Or, did he just not listen to them? Skilled communicators – especially politicians – need to learn to listen before they speak, especially to the media, and to stay on message.

So, can he recover? Maybe. I certainly hope that Rep. Weiner can overcome his mistakes on a personal level for the sake of his family. Former President Bill Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky at first, then told the truth, survived an impeachment hearing, and now is generally respected and revered for his post-presidency work.

However, Rep. Weiner does not have the same power as a president and, thus, is more expendable to the political process. With Democrats – including President Obama – now suggesting that he resign to take care of his personal problems, I doubt that he can remain in Congress. He may, however, make a comeback to host his own cable news talk show. Let’s hope not. Better avenues for recovery and redemption may be found in grassroots community service, non-profits or even teaching.

Rep. Weiner’s sexting scandal is yet another example of politically powerful men taking incredibly stupid risks in their personal lives. Those of us who study women and politics know that there are differences between men and women who run for public office.

In general, men are more likely than women to take risks and are more confident about their qualifications, including interacting with the media. Women, in general, need to be asked and encouraged – again and again – to take the risk to run for public office even when they are equally qualified. And, in general, women are often concerned about the media scrutiny that comes with running for political office, not only because it opens up their own personal lives to public examination but also the lives of their children and spouses.

Watching Rep. Weiner’s handling of his scandal has me wondering if the same qualities that make men more confident to run for political office – especially the risk taking – make them ultimately more vulnerable to downfall. Female politicians rarely, if ever, take such personally damaging risks – yet another reason to elect more women to political office.

Dianne Bystrom directs the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University and has a Ph.D in communication (political and mass). Her research focuses on the political communication of female and male candidates and lawmakers.