New York Governor’s real-life examples call ethics into question

By Kathy Krafka Harkema, APR

Some politicians continue to provide examples of what to do, or what not to do when it comes to upholding ethics standards. The latest of what not to do come from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Democrat).

With questions escalating about the accuracy of New York State’s death toll from COVID-19 skyrocketing, Governor Cuomo did little to reassure a concerned public. Instead, when he called a 2021 news conference that many believed in which he would finally apologize for his plan that sent patients infected with COVID-19 back to nursing homes in a March 25, 2020 directive, causing deaths to rise, he didn’t apologize. Instead, he went deeper into denial, making excuses and placing blame on others, rather than taking responsibility for the deaths caused by his decision to send COVID-19 infected patients back to nursing homes, rather than quarantining them in separate facilities.

He said, “Who cares (if they) died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died.” That callous response further infuriated people who felt Cuomo failed to take responsibility for his actions.  

Cuomo’s orders in New York State were unlike those of other states where previously hospitalized COVID-19 patients were not returned to nursing homes to expose some of the most vulnerable populations at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Governor Cuomo’s latest actions do little to restore his reputation or to reassure families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 after outbreaks ran rampant in nursing homes following his ill-fated decision.

Although one of Governor Cuomo’s top aides, Melissa DeRosa, reportedly told state Democratic leaders during a video call that New York State had understated the death toll in nursing homes across the state by as much as 50 percent, Governor Cuomo still denied any misreporting or wrongdoing.

As of January 19, 2021, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker released figures that showed the total death count from COVID-19 at 12,743 New Yorkers as of that date. Just a day earlier, New York publicly acknowledged only 8,711 deaths from COVID-19 among nursing home residents. That’s a big difference that calls the state’s statistics and transparency in reporting into question. That number reportedly leaps to 15,049 when assisted living and adult care facilities are added, fueling further questions about the validity and accuracy of the state’s data.

We can learn from Governor Cuomo’s actions.

If you’re wrong, admit it. Quickly. If your numbers are wrong, correct them quickly and explain how the mistake occurred and what you’ve done to prevent it in the future. If you’re wrong and made a mistake, be humble and learn from it. If you’re a public official like a Governor,  or the head of a company or department or the member of a team, admit it if you are wrong and take it a step further to show the steps you’ve taken to prevent a future similar mistake from happening again.

Continuing to deny facts doesn’t change them or make them go away. And the more you deny the facts, the more it can cause others to speak up and to question your ethics and your credibility. For example, now several women who previously worked with Governor Cuomo have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by the Governor.  On Sunday afternoon, February 28, long after the allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, Governor Cuomo acknowledged some of his actions including “being playful and making jokes” and teasing people “about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married” may be “misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”

Yet the Governor, who also faces allegations of bullying others, says “my office has heard anecdotally that some people have reached out to Ms. Bennett to express displeasure about her coming forward. My message to anyone doing that is that you have misjudged what matters to me and my administration and you should stop now – period.”

But the questions about Governor Cuomo’s character aren’t stopping. Nor are the people coming forward with their concerns about his actions and ethics.

Why did he make a statement and issue an apology about the sexual harassment allegations, but not the perceived COVID-19 missteps? And, why unlike his daily news conferences on COVID-19 that saw him given an Emmy award, did he issue a statement and not hold a news conference to confront the sexual harassment allegations?

His own New York Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat, also questions the Governor’s COVID-19 action and data. Governor Cuomo continues to dodge and deny, calling statements of others questioning his decisions or his personal actions as politically motivated.

What’s the truth? Was or is there a cover-up? Or are the critics of Governor Cuomo simply politically motivated, misguided or misjudging his actions as he claims? It’s hard to tell. There are always at least two sides or more to a story.

But the fact is thousands of people have died from COVID-19 in the State of New York and the state’s death count is in question. Many who lost loved ones in New York nursing homes to COVID-19 feel they died in part due to Governor Cuomo’s decision to send infected patients from hospitals into nursing homes. Many of those families are still grieving the loss of their loved ones. And each time their Governor dodges the issues or the facts, that grief resurfaces for many already angered by Cuomo’s actions, and the lack of an apology by the Governor.

Trusted and respected leaders lead by example.

Public officials and anyone in public life recognizes the importance of earning the public’s trust through leadership by example. Telling the truth and admitting it if you are wrong goes a long way to earning and retaining the public’s trust and respect. Showing the resolve to learn from mistakes and taking steps to ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again in the future also matters in the bank of integrity. Showing the strength to admit when you are wrong or when you have made a mistake also demonstrates character and courage.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics calls for public relations professionals to protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information, to aid in informed decision-making.  Our Code of Ethics also calls for us to be honest and accurate in all communications, and to act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which we are responsible. To refresh your understanding of your responsibilities under PRSA’s Code of Ethics, visit:

Will Governor Cuomo have the strength, courage, and ethics to truthfully level with the public about the COVID-19 nursing home death rates? Time will tell.






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