Can Gov. Cuomo survive his double crisis?
Sex sells — and sex scandals and the news they produce often spread like wildfire. Right now, everything encircling New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is ablaze.
Cuomo already was having reputation trouble with a crisis related to his administration’s alleged coverup of data related to COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes — but it’s the concurrent emergence of #MeToo allegations that have Cuomo fighting for his political survival. Calls for his resignation are flooding in from members of his own party, and the cries of outrage grow louder every day.
The Cuomo downfall is unique from most of the other #MeToo meltdowns we’ve seen in politics: A number of elements set it apart and will make it harder for him to restore his reputation or pursue higher office.
Most notable is Gov. Cuomo’s rapid rise and even more rapid fall in the eyes of Americans. Cuomo achieved almost cult-like status at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic with his riveting daily press conferences, his tough talk on COVID precautions and his advocacy for personal sacrifice for the larger good.
During those televised discussions, he emerged as a voice of calm and strong leadership in the void created by inaction in Washington. In retrospect, this was remarkable given the deep dislike that many New Yorkers already harbored for him. Many felt he was acting and playing a role during those Coronavirus briefings.
Then came the eruption of the nursing home statistics crisis. Reports that his administration grossly under-reported COVID-related nursing home deaths — and then tried to cover it up — undermined the very basis upon which Cuomo had become a household name.
Public trust in Cuomo began to evaporate.
Five separate accusations of sexual harassment — four from women who worked with Cuomo — further magnified the negative blowback that already existed.
Cuomo is a career politician who appears to have made missteps he should have known to avoid. What’s more, he can’t claim these alleged incidents were foibles from his youth: They all are fairly recent.
The simultaneous juxtaposition of good against bad makes the current crisis especially hard for Cuomo to escape. Last year’s image of a steady, genteel leader with sound judgment provides sharp contrast for allegations this year that paint a craven, creepy portrait of someone willing to wield power in unseemly ways.
As allegations about the nursing home numbers continue to swirl, and the harassment cases pile up, Cuomo’s enemies — inside and outside the Democratic Party — will continue to demand that he step down.
Thus far, Cuomo has stood behind the shield of due process, urging people to wait for the outcome of New York Attorney General Letitia James’s investigation of the harassment allegations. That’s smart — it taps into the image of the steady leader with sound judgment, and it buys him time.
But sex scandals are wildfire; they don’t burn slowly.
Increasingly, the question will become: Will enough New York Democrats be willing to get singed a bit in order to provide cover to help Cuomo hold on in Albany?
In the age of social media, that could prove difficult.
Most damaging of all, perhaps, is the photo evidence — and the resulting memes. Media outlets have run a photo of Cuomo placing his hands on the face of a petite, young woman. The lighting is dramatic. The woman’s body language seems to signal alarm and discomfort. While providing no proof, per se, of wrongdoing, the photo cements an image of Cuomo under fire — because, of course, it has been turned into social media memes. Once that happens, the audience of people who know about the allegations against you expands infinitely — and the “message” becomes impossible to manage.
One meme juxtaposes the photo with the words, “Cuomo gives a staff member a performance review.” Another simply says “predator.”
Images like those create lasting impressions.
Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.
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