One of the biggest issues for any public figure or brand is the faith with which they keep their core promise to their stakeholders. When they mess up, and they always do eventually, there is a momentary opportunity to avoid further disaster. This moment affords them the chance to come clean and potentially be forgiven for a transgression. But that moment quickly passes, and with it, and the opportunity to make it right.
Here’s how it works: A bad moment sticks to a public figure, candidate, or brand if the misstep directly contradicts the image. Another way to look at it is if such a misstep validates what a rival or competitor might say to undermine this image, then it can become a significant problem.
Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Joe Paterno (and Penn State) all had bad moments this week.
Herman Cain never professed to be, nor has he presented himself as, a choirboy. He has, however, tied himself to Republican Party “family values” issues that are enshrined in its platform including being anti-choice and anti-gay marriage. This is a major piece of his core promise. Therefore, the recent revelations he may have sexually harassed several women undermines his central message and breaks this promise.
Rick Perry never professed to be, nor has he presented himself as, an intellectual. He is, however, running for President of the United States. That alone requires, in voters’ minds, a high level of public sharpness and the ability to present himself in a way that people can imagine him as the leader of the free world. It is an implicit core promise all candidates must keep. His gaffe in Wednesday’s debate completely undermined this, added to perceptions about his competency already making the rounds, and made it impossible for voters to imagine him in the office.
Joe Paterno professed to be, and presented himself for decades, as a coach and educator, an influencer and molder of young minds. When it became known that he allegedly did not properly follow up on reports of pedophilia by a well-known assistant coach, his central message and core promise were damanged. His further, recent unwillingness to speak from the heart on the wretched topic, and his announcement that he would “retire” at season’s end (just before being fired), destroyed whatever promise remained.
Which brings us to Penn State, the only entity of the group that acted correctly, if extremely belatedly.
The institution did not let the moment or opportunity pass. Americans woke up Thursday morning to the surprising news that both Paterno and the university’s president, Graham Spanier, had been fired. Although there are many who disagree with these decisions, they were the right decisions. Penn State may not have immediately upheld the its core promise and brand image as a place where young people can learn to become professionals and contributing members to society. But its final actions at least open the door to an honest discussion of its proper role, which does not include protecting the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
There are lessons here for us all, the most important of which is this: Keep your promises and when you break them, don’t miss the moment at which you can begin to repair the damage and restore faith.
Goodbye to Cain, Perry, and Paterno. Let the healing begin in State College.
Copyright 2011 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.