Zipping It in a Sex Scandal

Mark Sanford’s press conference yesterday was the equivalent of an SOS, consultants say.

Mark Sanford’s press conference yesterday was the equivalent of an SOS, consultants say. The South Carolina governor gave a rambling apology to his mistress, his family and his country (in that order) in an 18-minute PR nightmare that kicked the Sanford camp into crisis mode. Washington is no stranger to sex scandals, but repentant pols don’t usually reminisce about the romantic saga of their extramarital affairs on national television. Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenahll Resources and author of Damage Control, said that the goal of a statement or press conference isn’t to make a bad situation look good—it’s to make it look less bad. Sanford made the situation look worse. “These guys don’t realize that less is more,” he explained. “The more units of sound they put out there, the more ridicule they receive.”   “It’s like taking a Band-Aid off a hairy arm,” said political consultant Allan Bonner. “You rip it off quickly and cleanly with as little pain as possible.” It was a clear to Bonner that PR folks weren't involved in the planning for this confession, which is a “pure Sanford” move. “He’s not a guy who lets his staff lead him around,” said Bonner. “He operates independently.” While some in the consulting world argue that press conferences put a human face on a scandal, in Sanford’s case, that face may have been a little too human. “The media thirsts for salacious stories, and Sanford handed them a gift,” said Jason Roe, managing partner at Revolvis. “Clearly he didn’t walk into that with a strategy.” Roe pointed to a major gaffe: apologizing for the pain he inflicted on his Argentinian mistress before apologizing to his wife and family (and he went on to leave open questions about the duration of the relationship and whether the relationship was terminated). But was Sanford’s press conference a complete train wreck? Roe did concede that Sanford did something right: He tackled the affair (or at least fumbled it) early on. Waiting for the story to fester would have spelled even more fallout.  Bonner credited Sanford for conducting the press conference without his wife. After years of a stand-by-your-man norm, wives have been notably absent from recent affair announcements—probably a good move. “Having the wife there adds insult to injury,” Bonner said. All three crisis managers agree that Sanford’s waterworks yesterday were not enough to quell the media fire. To ride out this scandal, Bonner thinks Sanford’s best move is to lay low and let it blow over. “He was a boring guy before, so he should just keep his head down and continue to be governor,” he said. He noted, however, that if there was any misappropriation of public funds used to fly around for the trysts, Sanford is dead in the water. Sanford has already trying to head off that criticism, announcing this afternoon that he would reimburse the state for the Argentinian leg of a Department of Commerce trip he took in June. For the immediate future, Roe had only two words of advice for Sanford: Shut up. “When you conclude a press conference and reporters are asking if you’re going to resign,” he said, “you probably should.” Amy Harris is a frequent contributor to Politics magazine.

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