Eliot Spitzer: A Tarnished Man, A Tarnished Brand

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[3/12 update: Spitzer has just resigned. Some further thoughts on my Impactiviti blog: Flawed or Fraud?]

The news is just breaking this afternoon – Eliot Spitzer, controversial Democratic governor of New York, has apparently been linked to a ring providing prostitution services.

Spitzer is hardly the first politician to be caught (as of this writing, allegedly caught) in a situation of moral compromise. But Spitzer is in a very awkward position – his entire public career was built on being the ethics enforcer. The prosecutor. The one going after the transgressions of the rich and powerful. Brand Spitzer was all about fighting corruption. But it was more than that…

Eliot Spitzer managed to gain a reputation for ruthlessness, pettiness, and arrogance. Some of his moves as Attorney General – and as Governor – were highly questionable. And so, when someone like that is caught in hypocrisy, there is little chance of recovery. If the charges prove true, Brand Spitzer is tarnished forever.

Mere mortals who stumble morally are often forgiven, particularly if they have a track record of seeking to do what’s right, and tend to show mercy and understanding toward others. But when you make a career out of applying the law with exceptional zeal, and then manage to do something that looks like you think you’re above the law – well, there won’t be a lot of sympathy or forgiveness, I suspect.

Lesson learned? People (and brands) make mistakes all the time. Sometimes grievous ones. If we’ve built good will and kindness into our brand, we can recover. But if we’re all about right/wrong, win/lose, and the self-aggrandizing exercise of power, then we have to face the uncomfortable fact that the stakes will be far higher when we muddy our shoes.

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