THE BLOG
06/09/2011 10:54 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2011

Anthony Weiner Is Not the Real Problem

Anthony Weiner is not the real problem. He is a product of the culture of the House of Representatives. He is not the first and he will not be the last to transgress.

The problem is that so many members of Congress have chosen to remain silent about Weiner's behavior. Rather than publicly objecting to his behavior and demanding his resignation, they have acted as if this is not their problem. Some may believe his acts were not serious enough to warrant resignation. More of them are likely making a personal calculation that they can best protect their own reputations by staying silent about Weiner's behavior.

But silence comes with its own set of consequences. In this era of mistrust, your reputation is built not just by your own actions, but by the actions of those with whom you associate. You protect it - or fail to do so -- at your peril. By failing to speak out against Weiner, these silent congressmen do more damage to the reputation of Congress and to their own personal reputations than they may want to recognize.

It is easy to understand why congressmen want to stay as far away from this scandal as possible. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the less you say, the less likely you are to be associated with Weiner and his actions.

But there is a common theme that emerges from extensive research on corporate and organizational reputation is that the public paints with a broad brush. The public creates narratives about entire professions from the acts of a few individuals and about industries from the acts of a few companies.

When one financial advisor is caught stealing from his clients, the reputation of all financial advisors is harmed. When one pharmaceutical company over-hypes their medication, we become skeptical of all drug company sales pitches. When one accounting firm cooks the books, the reputation of all accounting firms is damaged.

And when one congressman lies to the public, he makes all of us assume that every other congressman is a liar as well.

From a communications perspective, this places a significant burden on innocent congressmen. To defend their reputations, they must now explicitly distance themselves from the bad actors. They must actively engage in the debate to defend their own reputation.

Today, more congressmen have started to speak out. One, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, was among the most explicit in saying: "His actions have disgraced the Congress. Everyone should be focused on jobs and the economy and his refusal to do the right thing is a distraction."

This is a good start. If I were advising congressmen today, I would go even further:

I know Congress suffers from a severe lack of trust. Anthony Weiner and those like him are a big part of the reason why. This behavior is unacceptable and as a fellow congressman, I'm ashamed of it. As members of Congress, we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to at least a minimum standard that says that lying is unacceptable. This is not a high bar. It should be easily met. And for every minute that we do not demand Anthony Weiner be forced to resign, we further erode the trust Americans have in our institution.

This message alone will not rebuild all the trust lost in Congress but it would be a good start. It is also a lesson that all organizations would do well to keep in mind: in today's world, you are your brother's keeper.