The immoral science of scandal

Ever since Richard Nixon crashed and burned during Watergate almost 40 years ago, we’ve heard the damage-control platitude that it’s the cover-up that gets you. A corollary to this is the abracadabra chestnut that if Nixon had just “fessed up” right away, he could have dodged the whole mess.

Such notions are charming in a high school PR class kind of way, but they have little utility in real-world firestorms, which involve highly motivated adversaries and other capricious forces that determine who and what gets burned or blown up.

As our culture contemplates the Penn State disaster with an eye toward preventing such horrors in the future, we would do well to take a critical look at the thinking behind such crises and cover-ups, and why it is ultimately harmful, if not immoral, to keep trafficking in outdated crisis-management clichés.

It is precisely because cover-ups can, in fact, “work” on a tactical level, at least in the short term, that they can lay the foundation for monstrous behavior.

My objective is to red-flag some uncomfortable lessons of three decades in the peculiar field of damage control with an eye toward protecting the vulnerable as well as the institutions that should serve as our society’s pillars.

To be absolutely clear: My aim is not to conflate the discussion of crisis cover-ups with a winking endorsement of vile behavior, so please be patient.

Cover-up instinct and strategy

Cover-ups are both instinctive and strategic. As Adam and Eve reacted to their newly discovered nakedness by — literally — covering up, when individuals, corporations and institutions face exposure, they, too, attempt to conceal their wickedness or whatever reflects poorly upon them.

As John Dos Passos wrote, “The mind cannot support moral chaos for long. Men are under as strong a compulsion to invent an ethical setting for their behavior as spiders are to weave themselves webs.”

Put differently, we long to be accepted for the wonderful souls we often are not. Even criminals have an instinctive need to see themselves as being decent, thus the loathing of child molesters by convicted murderers.

My experience with clients in crisis validates that self-deception is the rule not the exception, which is why so many decision makers behave in ways that will likely hurt them and others in the long haul.

Cover-ups are also strategic. Those doing the misdirection at Penn State were rational in their belief that adverse publicity would destroy careers, reputations and potentially even their institution.

And, yes, in their triage, some of them willfully placed the protection of self and institutional interest over the welfare of the children who were so cold-bloodedly attacked.

So, in a hellish intersection of instinctive and strategic drives, a cover-up was born.