David Petraeus begins to rehabilitate his image

The retired general and former CIA director who resigned over an extra-marital affair last year apologized publicly for the first time on Tuesday night.


Can savvy public relations restore a war hero’s sullied reputation?

We’re about to find out.

On Tuesday night, former CIA Director David Petraeus apologized publicly for the extra-marital affair that led to his resignation from the nation’s spy agency in November. Patraeus, a retired four-star general and hero of the Iraq war, delivered his contrite remarks to about 600 people at the University of Southern California’s annual ROTC dinner. He began the speech:

“Needless to say, I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago. I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing. So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret—and apologize for—the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters.”

It was the first time Petraeus had publicly apologized for the affair. He received a standing ovation.

Although Petraeus focused the bulk of his speech on the difficulties military veterans face when they transition to civilian life, he also reportedly spoke of his “personal journey.” He closed the speech:

“As I close, I want to say thank you for words of encouragement to family. … This has been difficult episode for us … to fall as far as I did.”

Petraeus was reportedly dressed in civilian clothes, a suit and tie. His wife was not in attendance.

ABC News characterized the address, as well as an op-ed on veterans he wrote for The Wall Street Journal this week, as the “first steps in what appears to be a carefully choreographed comeback bid as he tries to rehab his once-pristine image.”

The New York Times described the speech as an effort by Petraeus to “open a new chapter in his career—one that carves out a role for himself as a voice on energy, economic and veterans issues and in the private sector.”

Recently, Petraeus has increased his visibility, sharing lunches and dinners with lawmakers and policy experts, according to Times. He has also entertained offers in the private sector.

In November, Petraeus issued his resignation—late on a Friday afternoon—from the CIA, admitting, “I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair.” Days later, news outlets were reporting that the architect of the Iraq war surge carried on an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

According to a PR Daily story from the time, public relations counselors said Petraeus handled the announcement with military-like precision.

In an Associated Press story about Tuesday’s speech, crisis communications experts gave Petraeus high marks for the apology. Longtime PR counselor Michael Levine said, “If he follows the path of humility, personal responsibility and contrition, I submit to you that he will be very successful in his ability to rehabilitate his image.”

According to the Times, the speech was scheduled long before the scandal emerged last year.

Coincidentally, another public figure, pro golfer Tiger Woods, is also in the news for—what the media has billed as—his return after a high-profile scandal in which he cheated on his wife. PR professionals weighed in on Woods here.

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