Thursday, June 25

Flirting With Brand Damage: Mark Sanford

"When we do these kinds of things like what happened with Ensign and now with Sanford it hurts our credibility as a party of good governing and of values.” — Ron Kaufman, lobbyist

If anyone is wondering (and some people still are) why marital affairs seem to roll off some politicians and not others, look no further than the Fragile Brand Theory. It has much less to do with the personal lives of political candidates and much more to do with the personal brands they adopt.

Never mind that 90 percent of Americans believe affairs are morally wrong. Conservative estimates suggest affairs are commonplace, with estimates that 60 percent of all men and and women will have an affair. Quantified, that would mean infidelity impacts approximately 80 percent of all marriages with varying degrees.

As for politics, marital affairs became fair game in 1828, with Andrew Jackson's opposition wondering if his wife was legally divorced by the time they married. Since, Wendell Wilkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all had affairs. And along with Bill Clinton in 1998, MSNBC reports there have been 23 high profile scandals in the last decade alone, which seems to coincide with increased public scrutiny over personal choices as well as the global trend to place less value on the definition of marriage.

Understanding marriage and extramarital affairs as a definition

While researchers generally break down extramarital affairs into physical and emotional attraction with the root cause being dissatisfaction with their partners, the real reasons are generally much more individualized. They could stem from any number of reasons, including low self-esteem, physical fantasy, geographical distance, pressure escapism, random encounter, intoxication, dissatisfaction in a marital role (with no bearing on the partner), and so on and so forth.

However, regardless of the reasons, extramarital affairs provide a stark contrast to the value most modern civilized societies place on a family to provide an intimate environment, mutual support, emotional security, and personal commitment. In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, marriage is among the most prized of all partnerships.

Affairs, on the other hand, are generally regarded as the polar opposite, much more so than any other factor that could potentially estrange a relationship (e.g., poor financial management, the assumption a marital contract exempts poor personal choices, etc.). In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, affairs represent selfishness and betrayal.

Understanding the public figure's ability to survive one

Why was John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton able to mostly survive extramarital affairs whereas John Ensign and Mark Sanford cannot (beyond the apparent hypocrisy)? They did for very different reasons.

Kennedy carried forth a suave and youthful image during an era well suited to ignore it. And Clinton's emphasis was on being human for nearly ten years, and thus more apt to make a human mistake. (Ergo, a man with a weakness for a Big Mac might very well have other weaknesses.)

Of course, there are other factors too. Any infraction made by a public figure is dependent on the company they keep and on how they handle the crisis once it surfaces.

In Nevada, the feeling toward John Ensign is one of disappointment after a somber but articulate press conference. In South Carolina, Sanford's bumbled press conference seems to be facing more backlash for breaking trust and betraying not only his wife but those he governed.

Multiple messages and brands dictate public figure outcomes

While predicting outcomes might be simple, any public consequence is a complex combination of personal branding, organizational (party) branding, definition (marriage) branding, current public sentiment, personal cause, and the ability to appropriately handle the crisis. Case in point, the public tends to see celebrity infidelity as vastly different — with more concern over who the celebrity has an affair with rather than the fact they had an affair.

In contrast, Republicans normally embrace certain core values, which generally reside too far away from the core of being human. And while I'd be the last to suggest Republicans sacrifice the concept of these values in order to curry the favor of more exceptions, they might consider whether it's time to reconsider the construct.

While striving (sometimes unsuccessively) for higher purpose is always admirable, current cultural trends seem to suggest that being human is all too common for any public figure to allow themselves to be placed on pedestal made of clay. In fact, the very dynamic of doing so might make one party seem overly selective (with greater failures), leaving the other to represent everyone else who is willing to admit they sometimes make mistakes.

After all, no one can really place so much emphasis on higher principles or moral ground at the risk of overriding the most admirable of all. Forgiveness.


Mark on 6/25/09, 2:12 PM said...

The GOPs branding did help make this a story, The other element, though, is Sanford simply disappearing for five days, which calls to mind an adjective stronger than unreliable. How about unstable? Okay, that might not be fair, but who in public life thinks he can disappear for that long?

Rich on 6/26/09, 5:53 AM said...


The disappearance didn't help. Of course, I dismissed the instability factor because it's such a common symptom of those engaged in affairs, especially those who would otherwise demonstrate moral values.

Really, all lies, but infidelity in particular, call for the individual to invent a perception so contrary from reality that they inevitability have temporary mental breaks with varied degrees of odd behavior.

However, his disappearance could have been the result of the increasing pressure of position, not only as governor but as a potential contender for the presidency without the affair. Many people thrust into the national spotlight have an increased need for escapism. But, of course, this wasn't just about that. It is more likely the result of living a lie.

Covering most of that in the body of the post have taken us too far off the communication topic, and it's nearly impossible to guess what Sanford's motivation to have an affair was. Chances are that he doesn't even know why he did what he did.


Kevin Goodman on 6/27/09, 9:48 AM said...

The focus is on Sanford but I think the events leading to his confession are very peculiar. For instance the fact that a senator who is known as a personal rival issued the news with a press release informing the public that nobody knew where the governor was – this was not from state but from a state senator’s office. His wife doesn’t know where he’s at but isn’t concerned and we find out later they had been separated for two weeks. Then when he arrives he says nothing happened out of the ordinary but is called a liar by the senator who made the matter public – hours later he breaks into a full confession. Come on, this guy had his arm twisted and I would guess that some of the people who brought this to the fore front knew the Governors location or the nature of his vacation.

I don’t know if the governor is morally competent for office – I have no idea but I think we might dig a little deeper. Withholding information to a governor’s disappearance, conspiracy, and blackmail are ‘actually’ illegal. I wrote my thoughts with a little more detail at

Rich on 6/27/09, 1:18 PM said...


Now your post provides an interesting dynamic, especially the idea that a bitter Ms. Sanford could have conspired with his political enemies. That certainly seems plausible.

It's so very hard to say what constitutes moral competence these days. Perhaps the better question is one of judgement — better judgement dictates one breaks it off before the affair and not after the fact.

You're right that there is too much information missing to hazard any guesses, which is why sticking to the communication aspect is the easier case to make.

One wonders how different this might have played out had he announced the separation when he says it occurred, and then disappeared for a few days. Perhaps nobody would have cared. A better press conference would have certainly helped.

In terms of the arm twisting, there is obviously some on the party side with its step down from everything stance. There seems to be little increasingly less tolerance for any indiscretion these days, which indicates they are raising the pedestal higher.

From a risk management consideration, I'm not sure that is a good thing. Statistically, it isn't viable.

Affairs are wrong by any measure, given it requires the offending parties to consistently deceive someone who is supposed to be their most trusted ally. However, it seems extraordinary naive to pretend that this is so shockingly rare when it's so obviously common. It has been for hundreds of years.


Kevin Goodman on 6/27/09, 1:45 PM said...

I think what really gets me, is that it is senator Knotts that issued the press release and said the governor is missing. Why did he take it upon himself instead of work with an agency, the governors office, Lt. governor, etc. why an individual senator? And when he comes back and says it was just an exotic vacation senator knotts quickly declares him a liar but gives us nothing else. A few hours later the governor changes his story and admits an affair. Why does senator Knotts seem to be in the shadow of this whole thing?

Rich on 6/29/09, 7:33 AM said...


Some of this is politics as usual, where as various interests place their agenda ahead of the public. Many of them spend more time in the shadows than they would ever consider spending in the light.

It seems there are only two possibilities for Knotts. Either he was one of the instruments of destruction as you allude or he knew everything and advised the governor come clean. Somehow, the later seems less plausible. As such, it reinforces that karma is good thing if it exists because Knotts will eventually reap.

Still, it's worth looking into from a communication aspect because I know a little bit about shadow manipulation, where as one party focuses all the attention on the shadow of reputation over the reality of character.

What Sanford did is wrong, but it doesn't seem to encompass his entire character.


Kevin Goodman on 6/29/09, 9:21 AM said...

From a brand perspective - I think this has to devistate Sanford because he has played a holy-roller of sort.

Someone like Clinton could recover because he placed emphasis on liberal progress whereas Sanford has advocated moral principals. I think he built his house on the wrong foundations for a quake like this.

But I do feel sorry for him because I believe he has contradicted such extreme and overt values that he must have felt very very conflicted - His response has been quarky at times. My take is that he is unsuited for executive leadership and that has less to do with his affair than his own mental fraility.

Rich on 6/29/09, 10:31 AM said...


I agree. This needed not to be a career ending moment.

People tend to forget that personal branding only provides a 180 degree view of people. It rarely includes the whole package. We have a long way to go, I think, before we can come to terms with accepting people, faults and all.



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