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Gov. Mark Sanford and the dos and don’ts of making over a ruined reputation

Charleston City Paper
Sep 30, 2009 – By Kinsey Labberton

I once babysat a 4-year-old who vehemently denied pooping her pants. The evidence was obvious, the fragrance undeniable, and yet through crocodile tears she maintained her innocence, sobbing, “But, I didn’t POOP my pants!” As if bawling would excuse the stinky mess she’d made.

The experience felt oddly similar to when the governor’s car was found at a Columbia airport. Again the evidence was obvious, the smell of political postmortem pungent, and yet in a press conference all I seemed to hear him sniffle was “Did I say Appalachian Trail? I meant Argentinian tail. Oops, sorry.”

For both the 4-year-old and the 49-year-old, the problem is this: no one cares how many tears you cry baby, your shit still stinks. And your image, like your pants, is soiled forever.

Or is it?

The U.S. is heavy on public image disasters as of late (ahem, Kanye, I’m looking at you), and South Carolinians are no exception. Along with Sanford, names like Thomas Ravenel, Al Parish, 2007 Miss Teen South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton, and most recently Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson, come to mind. Thanks to them and others, the Palmetto State’s already mediocre national image has, in the past few years, become as mucky as the aforementioned toddler’s trousers. (By the by South Carolina glitterati, when the entire nation has yet to forgive our state’s involvement in the Civil War, we should work to diminish negative attention, not magnify it.)

Some states and cities would shrug off this kind of bad press, but Charleston has always been an image-conscious town. Given that the majority of our jobs are based on hospitality, specifically those creating the illusion of Southern romance, this kind of damaging attention should make every Holy City resident just a little bit worried. Which is why we assembled a sort of pro bono crisis management team, a group of Charleston experts in public relations, etiquette, image consulting, communications, and ethics to determine, on a personal, local, and state level, what is image really worth? And can a tarnished reputation be fixed?

Which brings us to the curious case of Mark Sanford and his bungled Argentinian confession — first at the Statehouse and later to an AP reporter.

“He was trying to come across as speaking from the heart. That came out wrong, wrong, wrong!” says Lizz Akerman, owner of local image consulting firm Southern Protocol.

Known among the higher circles of Charleston society as “not your granny’s cotillion teacher,” Akerman doesn’t mince words. “Sanford needed a crisis team to muzzle him!”

As you’ll recall, our governor told the AP: “This was a whole lot more than a simple affair. This was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.” Yeah, that’d be the muzzle moment she’s referring to.

“That came across as narcissistic. It was a pity party for himself,” she says.

Akerman has spent the better part of the past six years teaching her Charleston clients, both children and adults alike, that “your behavior sends a message.” Whether outfitting an individual with a new wardrobe or educating a person on how to work a room, her goal is always to teach folks how to dress, act, and be better. Her current advice to Sanford is this: “When you’ve got a crisis, you need to come in like a lamb and be humble and sincere. Now’s not the time to try to be charming.”

So take Akerman’s recommendation above and add to it, “The better part of valor is discretion,” says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette expert Emily Post, and a successful etiquette author in her own right. The line comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and it’s spoken by the character of Falstaff. A thief, highwayman, and mooch, Falstaff is the play’s comic relief. He says this line after avoiding death on the battlefield by pretending to be a corpse. True, he’s a coward, but as Post points out, in a way he’s right. In certain circumstances it’s best to be discrete rather than expose oneself foolishly. In regards to political figures, like Sanford, she says, “People should consider what the public needs to know and move on.”

Post has the chops to talk. Her last name alone confirms a legacy of decorum expertise the likes of which allow her to call out our governor Billy Shakes-style, but prior to joining the family business, she worked for the U.S. Senate. She’s seen this show before on Capitol Hill. Perhaps you’ve caught an episode too; it’s called Congressmen Gone Wild.

So Sanford botched up a press conference, a few interviews, and an op-ed, but he handled some parts of the situation OK, didn’t he? Kinda.

Shauna Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting and a certified expert by the Association of Image Consultants International, says our Bible-quoting Romeo did one thing right.

“I definitely think he needed to be honest enough to cause the media to not have to research more,” she says.

Well done, sir. Sanford took exposing the dirty details into his own hands. No research necessary there. (He even handed over those pesky travel records which are currently giving him such a headache.) That’s a communication tip for anyone in an image snafu.

But over-sharing is not strategy, as Post writes about frequently in her books pertaining to modern manners. With the overwhelming access to Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and 24-hour news channels, the last thing a celebrity should do is feed the media flame with his or her own verbal lighter fluid.

That may seem like obvious advice, but sometimes you need someone to point that out to you. Someone most politicos and big-name stars have on payroll — a communications director.

Yeah, what about him? That’s what a lot of folks were wondering when the Sanford verbal diarrhea hit the fan. Where were his handlers? We’re sure Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s now-resigned spokesperson, was asking himself the same thing.

“He should have at least confided in Joel and let Joel make the decision of whether to hide from the situation or expose it,” says Elizabeth Boineau, a public relations expert and former VP of such companies as Fleishman Hillard, Inc. and Weber Public Relations Worldwide.

Having dealt with corporate crises in the past, Boineau knows a thing or two about controlling a situation. “You need to admit what you’ve done wrong, set out a path to recovery, set up channels of communication, and make sure your internal staff all understands clearly what the message is that they’re to deliver as they are all serving as ambassadors,” she says. “Truth is essential, but there are ways to formulate a message that has strategy.”

Incidentally, this is one area our tongue-tied darling Miss Teen South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton handled well during her “the Iraq, such as” crisis. “Her Today show appearance was a disaster, but she went on Comedy Central, and it was hilarious,” says Akerman. “Sometimes you need to be able to say, ‘I’m not perfect, I looked like a goofball,’ and laugh at yourself.”

That’s exactly what Upton did, thanks to Daniel Tosh of the TV show Tosh.0. Upton went on an episode which included digs at pageant host Mario Lopez and filmed a scene where Tosh and Upton are walking down a street, both wearing blue formal gowns. In a girlish confessional voice Tosh asks Upton about her dreadful performance in the pageant’s interview portion: “So what happened up there?” Upton then admits, “I was having an out-of-body experience. It was an honest mistake. It happens to everybody.” Enough said.

But Sanford can hardly use The Daily Show or The Colbert Report to his benefit. Humor is out of the question. However, Boineau’s other tip, that the governor needs to streamline his message, is a viable option. Whether or not his team is using such strategies is yet to be seen. Whatever the case, Boineau, who was a psych major in college before heading into PR, does have a theory as to why this all happened. “The greed and thirst for power or money causes an altering of ego,” she says, which often creates delusional behavior.

Even Jenny Sanford agrees with that and said as much in her Vogue interview. “Politicians become disconnected from the way everyone else lives in the world. I saw that from the very beginning. They’ll say they need something, and 10 people want to give it to them. It’s an ego boost, and it’s easy to drink your own Kool-Aid. As a wife, you do your best to keep them grounded, but it’s a real challenge,” she said.

Grounded, eh? Sanford was anything but; after all, he’s the most powerful man in the state — at least theoretically. “It must be kind of seductive to think you’re a normal person, but that’s not the world public figures live in,” says College of Charleston communications professor Elena Strauman. She believes there’s no such thing as a controlled image anymore.

“Look at FDR,” Strauman says, “the reason why he was so credible is the press corps agreed not to photograph him in his wheelchair. Ever! Think about the level of respect. We’ve blown past that.

“With the Sanford coverage, it wasn’t what he did. It was the way he communicated about it after the fact,” she says. “The thing with him was the inconsistency. It’s very similar to Bill Clinton, which is ironic. It’s one thing to spin your lie so that it is useful to you, but any good propagandist knows you can’t lie. Once you’ve gotten caught, it’s too hard to rehabilitate yourself.”

Strauman explains that the idea of a “backstage,” or a place hands-off to the media, no longer exists, because of this, it’s much more difficult for individuals to craft an image. And nowadays, she adds, “It’s not only what you say, but what gets said about you that ends up on YouTube.”

Take for instance cases like that of Howard Dean, whose scream essentially blew his presidential bid. Or the recent image of Obama at the G8 Summit. “It looked like he was checking a girl out. Pull back from the image though and he’s really just watching his footing,” Strauman says. She counts this as further proof that the ways in which you can be misrepresented are incalculable.

Luckily, most mere mortals back here on planet Earth don’t face the same scrutiny as that of celebrities. Yet anyone can fall victim to image distortion. The truth of the matter is maintaining one’s good name, whether it’s John Edwards or John Doe, takes a lot of work, not to mention the fact that given the economic situation it can mean the difference between a paycheck and a pink slip.

“I’m seeing a number of unemployed folks in their 30s and 40s contacting me,” says Heathman. “A lot of people really want to hone their first impression.”

Considering that a 2006 Princeton study found that it takes one-tenth of a second for someone to make a judgment about you based on facial features alone, these folks have the right idea. When Heathman works with a client she starts with the basics, like appearance. “Then we talk about what audience they’re trying to reach,” she says. Heathman had one woman in her 50s come to her and say that coworkers and other individuals were always asking her if she was having a bad day.

“Well, this client always had a negative look on her face, and she needed someone to tell her to smile more,” says Heathman. “I’m a strong believer in smiles. It’s an instant cue that you’re approachable, and it’s a very important business tool. It makes you look warm and attractive.”

Business management consultant and marketing strategist Ronii Bartles of Bartles & Associates, sought out Heathman’s services after opening her own business. “I was finding that I was meeting a lot of people, but not really getting anywhere,” she says. With Heathman’s help Bartles discovered she was giving a very inconsistent impression of herself. “One day I would wear a very hip, young, modern business casual outfit, and the next I would wear a frumpy ‘old lady’ sweater and slacks that didn’t fit right.” With a little wardrobe consultation and some analysis of her body and shape Heathman helped Bartles balance her wardrobe, which in turn boosted her confidence and assured clients of her professionalism.

Still, some might question the trade of image consulting. “I know that many people feel that it is manipulation, but I don’t feel like it is at all,” says Bartles. “Image consulting is about finding your best qualities and accentuating them so that you feel better about yourself and how you interact with people.”

Many will shudder to hear it, but Boineau goes so far as to suggest that it’s not such a bad idea to think of yourself as a brand. “This means the reputation, identity, image, and mental pictures that come up at the mention of your own name,” she says. “You’ve got to ask yourself what do I stand for? What does my brand identity represent, as far as my values, character, and the example I exhibit?”

Those are all logical questions anyone could ask themselves, and analyzing one’s own image is remarkably straightforward, but consider how veiled decorum in modern society used to be. When Emily Post wrote her first book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home in 1922, Anna Post says, “She knew how prissy and exclusive society was, and she didn’t like that. She took all those unspoken rules and gave them away. It was incredibly democratizing.”

Lucky for us, manners are for everyone these days, and though a fresh wardrobe will help, an honest disposition and a smile is worth more than a Chanel suit — something to keep in mind, specifically in Charleston where one’s dollars versus one’s sense can get confused.

“In Charleston we were living in what I like to call the roaring 2000s of excess and mini McMansions,” says Akerman.

Boineau agrees, “We were thinking we were all at some high level of accomplishment and in charge of our financial destiny. You wonder if there is a theme here with Al Parish, Sanford, and Thomas Ravenel. You look at the money and egos; people were riding high on this house made of sticks.”

Which brings us back to the image we have as South Carolinians. “Constituents of South Carolina are walking ambassadors of the state,” says Boineau, who recently had to defend her home state and try to explain the governor’s actions while having dinner with friends in California.

“I felt so personally injured for the profession of communications because of how horribly it had been handled,” she says. Boineau managed to make it through the meal, but she admits she was relieved when the media found another hot topic to harp on — the death of Michael Jackson.

But ultimately the Sanford scandal gives one pause. “I think it does give us all at least a little bit of a wake up call of what you can’t get away with and a bit of a reminder that we are all human. You know, but for the grace of God go I,” she says.

Like anything, time heals all wounds, and another election is just around the corner. In the meantime, on a personal level perhaps, it’s worth a moment’s contemplation to consider one’s own image, not just as an individual, but as a representative of a city and even a state.

As Elena Strauman says, “Thinking before you speak will never go out of style.”

And neither will have a clean pair of pants.

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