Confucius would have loved public relations. He knew that managing our public reputation is among our highest ethical obligations, one that is extremely difficult to get right.
It is made even more difficult by a culture that keeps telling us that appearances don't matter. How many times have you heard that the most important thing is what we have inside, not the image we show to the public.
Inner authenticity matters more than outward reputation. Inner emotion matters more than decorum, propriety, and standing tall.
By this thinking, public relations is an elaborate cover-up. Companies use it when they want to hide something. People use it when they have something to hide.
We have also been told that what really matters is how you think, not how you behave. Of course, you cannot repair your public reputation by engaging in mental gymnastics.
Only public behavior can restore your public reputation. If more people knew it, then we would not have had to wait for Jenny Sanford to show us how to handle a philandering politician.
All of which to introduce Tina Brown's advice to Mark and Jenny Sanford on her website, The Daily Beast. Link here.
Brown makes two points. One is incisive; the other is not.
First, she suggests that Gov. Sanford's apology was too wordy, too narrative, too full of the love that he was ostensibly saying was a mistake.
Brown is saying that an apology is a formal public ritual. It is a time for abject humility, not for poetic expression.
When you apologize you say that you got it wrong, that you are solely responsible for your mistake, that nothing justifies the mistake, and that you promise not to do it again.
If a man turns his apology for a love affair into a disguised paean to his lover, he is not saying that he made a mistake. He may regret having gotten caught, but Mark Sanford does not regret his love for Maria.
Second, Brown offered some less than helpful advice to Jenny Sanford. Here Brown let her emotions get the better of her, and that always produces bad PR: "Just when she set the table for a big-ticket matrimonial lawyer to have a payday on behalf of all the humiliated wives... the First Lady of South Carolina blew it. She chose instead a pious manifesto that lets the governor completely off the hook: 'I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance.'"
You have to wonder what there is about that statement that Tina Brown could find offensive. Jenny Sanford chose to split the difference, to seek out a golden mean between the extreme reactions of revenge and silence.
The fact that the other humiliated wives chose silence, even to the point of being partners in crime, does not make Jenny Sanford duty-bound to take up their cause and unleash the furies of divorce lawyers.
Among these wives, Jenny Sanford is the one who did not stand by her man. She had previously asked him to leave home. When asked where he had spend Father's Day, she said she did not know.
She was decidedly not trying to cover for him. She was directing the world's attention to his actions, without injecting her emotions into the picture. Any emotional outburst would have served merely as a distraction.
But Jenny Sanford did not completely close the door to reconciliation. To the chagrin of Tina Brown she offered her husband a way back into his marriage.
Considering that there are children involved, hers was a generous gesture, one that most people will make, but also, one that shifted the onus to her husband and away from herself. She avoided the extreme position of cutting him off completely, and chose to show herself as someone who sought the middle ground.
Also, Jenny Sanford spoke for herself. Had she kept silent she would have been acting as the one who had been humiliated. Had she blamed the vast left-wing conspiracy she would have made herself a partner in crime.
This does not mean that she did not feel humiliated. It does mean that she knew something that escaped the other humiliated wives. That is, how to go about restoring her reputation.
She knew that extreme emotional outbursts, fits of pique and tantrums, and sulking in the corner... solve nothing.
When a humiliated spouse shows herself either to be emotionally overwrought or drained, other people begin saying that they can now understand why Mark Sanford was engaged in an extramarital affair.
After all, many couples like Mark and Jenny Sanford do manage to put their marriages back together. Some do not. At the least, all parties should do everything in their power to retain their dignity and self-respect.