Governor Andrew Cuomo’s book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” debuted at number seven on The New York Times best seller list in October and remained on top through the year's end.
Three months later, his sequel, “Gubernatorial Crisis: Failed Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” ought to be mandatory reading for every public relations counselor.
The New Yorker’s dizzying fall from grace—from first to worst among U.S. governors—provides a cautionary tale not only for public figures but also for those who advise them.
The reason, in a word, for the once-respected Governor’s rapid decline in esteem, trust and credibility is “hubris,” i.e., excessive pride, conceit or arrogance.
And Gov. Cuomo’s unbridled hubris—demonstrated over nine months of preening, preaching and self-promoting followed by three months of back-pedaling, blaming and alibiing—has landed the erstwhile Democrat darling squarely in the middle of an untenable, unwinnable and, for Andrew Cuomo himself, “unimaginable,” public relations disaster.
For those unwilling to wait for the sequel’s publication, here is the CliffsNotes version of the public relations rules Cuomo violated on his way to political purgatory.
Violation one: Cuomo took full credit
Early on as the virus spread, Cuomo took to the airwaves to assure the nation that he, like Al Haig—look it up—was “in charge.”
Cuomo’s daily press conferences, wherein the media-savvy Governor held forth with a mix of COVID updates, personal anecdotes and homespun wisdom, quickly became must-see TV both on eager liberal networks CNN and MSNBC and reluctant conservative network Fox.
The Governor, a consummate showman, dutifully dodged a daily dose of mainly softball questions from distanced—but still mostly awed—reporters, while taking full credit for New York’s—i.e. his!—handling of the COVID crisis. As he humbly recounted on opening night of the August virtual Democratic Convention, “For all the pain and all the tears, our way worked. And it was beautiful.”
Just as Cuomo was oblivious to his cringe-worthy choice of describing the pandemic as “beautiful,” so, too, was he loathe to share the stage with any of his underlings. This stood in stark contrast to his New Jersey counterpart, Gov. Phil Murphy, who understood the importance of crediting others, and every day at his COVID press conferences called on subordinates to report and commended them effusively.
At Cuomo's press conferences, ironically, the only subordinate who dared speak when not called upon was the Governor’s top assistant, Melissa DeRosa, who in January ultimately lowered the boom on Prince Andrew with damning leaked remarks to legislators.
Violation two: Cuomo believed his own publicity
As the crisis wore on and the more the media fawned over Cuomo’s virtuoso daily performances, the more his acclaim ascended. And the Governor reveled in his grandiosity.
His daily press conference that began as a deadly serious news briefing morphed into a variety show, with Andrew as the gregarious MC. He beamed in Chris Rock and Rosie Perez to talk up New York, Sean Penn to discuss new COVID relief centers and his duller fellow governors, Murphy in New Jersey and Ned Lamont in Connecticut, to express their “togetherness.”
The Cuomo coup de grace was live interviewing his CNN brother Chris, who had contracted COVID. The brothers were so entertaining, trading playful family banter and praising one another’s dedication and resolve, that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded the Governor an Emmy for his TV service to humanity.
And then, eight months into the crisis in the blunder of all blunders, Andrew decided to write a 320-page book to share with a grateful COVID-ravaged nation his “hard-won lessons in leadership and his vision for the path forward.”
Cuomo’s vainglorious publishing victory lap, like President George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration three years before the end of the Iraqi War, would backfire ferociously three months later.
Violation three: Cuomo feigned empathy
In early February, after DeRosa let slip that Cuomo purposely withheld New York’s skyrocketing COVID-19 nursing home death count, the Governor sprang into full damage control mode to try to tamp down the mounting furor.
It hasn’t worked. Try as he might, Andrew Cuomo has a tough time expressing true empathy.
Typical were his comments at his first post-DeRosa bombshell press conference, when he tried to relate to loved ones of nursing home victims by citing the loss of his own father.
“I still go through it over and over and over again. What should I have done? What could I have done? What should I have said to the doctor? I probably always will.”
Cuomo’s father, of course, died six years ago from heart problems at the age of 82, with his family by his side. Mario Cuomo’s demise stood in stark contrast to most of the 15,000 New York nursing home COVID victims who were prohibited from seeing their loved ones when they died. Andrew’s comparison to his father was ill-conceived, if not simply tone-deaf.
Compare that attempt at empathy to Gov. Murphy’s inclusion at every press conference of real-life stories and photos of at least three randomly-selected and mostly unknown New Jersey COVID victims. The latter is empathetic; the former is manipulative.
Violation four: Cuomo accepted no blame
Finally, Prince Andrew, like King Donald before him, was quick to point fingers at others, rather than accepting blame himself, when things went horribly wrong.
Faced with scorn from both parties, criticism from the media—except for Chris Cuomo, who CNN, on second thought, suddenly barred from reporting on his brother’s travails—and looming state and federal investigations, Cuomo reluctantly acknowledged that his administration should have provided more information faster.
“The truth is, everyone did everything they could do. The truth is you had the best medical professionals and advice on the globe. The truth is it was in the middle of a pandemic. The truth is COVID attacks senior citizens,” the Governor explained.
He then went on to blame social media, 24-hour news stations, Republicans with agendas and even—in an admirably-inventive deflection—pointed to his own state public health director, Howard Zucker, as a possible culprit.
“You couldn’t find a more qualified man to do this at this time than Dr. Zucker,” the Governor intoned, even though nobody asked. “I would trust him with my mother’s care. I can’t offer a more ringing endorsement than that. And it’s his decisions that people now question with no credential.”
In the end, Andrew Cuomo is as ambitious and chameleonic a political creature as ever there was. And no doubt this crisis, too, will pass. But Andrew and his legacy have been mightily wounded.
Going forward, Gov. Cuomo might consider the advice proffered in another book, admittedly far less noteworthy than “Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” That book was the Bible. And the advice: “Pride Goeth Before a Fall.”
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].