When will they learn? Maybe never.
The latest example is Anthony Weiner, New York City mayoral candidate.
His is not a new phenomenon. Like many before him, having skimmed the truth with the media at the outset, Mr. Weiner has learned the hard way that the drip-drip of new revelations will come to tell the real tale and dominate the story. Character questions move to the forefront and disgrace most often follows.
When Mr. Weiner decided at the onset of his campaign not to be forthcoming about the number of women with whom he was sexting, his fate was sealed and the reaction of the media would become a barrage. The New Yorker cover story and media coverage of the resignation of his campaign director are dramatic punctuation points to a critical mistake.
For centuries, the media have influenced opinions. Their origin as "watchdogs" dates back to nineteenth century British Parliament when reporters sitting in the gallery were referred to as the "Fourth Estate." Listening to the debates on the floor and then writing about them was the onset of modern journalism.
Today, though, the media have power beyond anything we've known in the past given the exponential influence of social media. The familiar comparison of the impact of social media to the ground-breaking Faberge Organic Shampoo television commercial of the 1980s is apt. As the photo of a young model with a flowing mane of shining blonde hair multiplies on screen, the voiceover intones, frame after frame: "You tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on and so on and so on." The imagery is powerful.
Estimates of how many people use social media each day reach into the billions. While we most often hear about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, by latest count the industry identifies well over 130 social media and networking sites with active users sharing ideas and opinions on computers, smart phones, tablets, and other tech devices. That number doesn't include all the apps and websites devoted to everything from gossip to hard news and opinion with "The Huffington Post" holding the influential lead as an online newspaper.
Even before its most recent inroads into mobile, Facebook alone boasted well over 500 million active, monthly users. The tally of other social networking sites ranges from a few million each to the majority that rank in the hundreds of millions of active users. Overwhelming as these totals are, they don't include email and content-sharing platforms such as AOL, Google, and Yahoo.
Just try to imagine billions of social media messages traveling at lightning speed around the globe. If anyone dares to think about doing the math, especially recognizing that many people use more than one social networking site, it blows the mind.
If traditional media reporters - those writing for newspapers, network and cable television, and radio - happen to miss a story or the details of a transgression, you can bet that all those bloggers and social media opinion-makers will be thumb typing on their handheld devices. They are a digital breed of investigators, gossipers, and reporters. Add to the mix those who stir the pot by sharing once-private text messages, photos, or other juicy tidbits. Then sit back, watch what happens, and listen to how loud the controversy becomes.
Wow. Sounds like the Anthony Weiner saga.
No doubt, he regrets trying to avoid the truth at the outset. If handled differently, perhaps his early lead in the polls might have held.
So what's the lesson here? When it comes to disclosure, don't underestimate the power of the media and social media. Get the news out quickly and fully. Be truthful.
If you are tempted to skim the truth or try some sort of "spin," it won't work. Frankly, no one likes being lied to. It will backfire. Those who would support you quickly come to believe that you are insulting and treating them as if they are stupid.
They question your moral compass. That can be worse than the indiscretion itself.
In what is fairly typical in these situations, those closest to the problem don't see clearly. It would seem that wishful thinking, naiveté, ego, or plain arrogance get in the way.
As I warn in my book, "The Power of Reputation," the rule of thumb is that you have less than 12 hours to come clean once social media takes over. Mr. Weiner certainly missed that deadline.
Acknowledgment, a sincere apology early, contrition, remorse, and commitment to a different way of behavior are the only paths to take. While we all love the comeback kid, it only happens if truth leads the way.
As with virtually every aspect of life, it all boils down to trust and the expectations others have about how each one of us can be counted on to behave.