Last week brought news of disgraced general/CIA chief and potential presidential candidate David Petraeus‘s first post-scandal appearance. Petraeus used a speech before a University of Southern California dinner honoring the military to effectively begin his apology tour. We and everyone else in PR are obsessed with damage control, and we feel like Petraeus got it right. Now we’d like to take a moment to relay seven lessons from recent scandal-wracked personalities who didn’t quite get it right.
1. Make it public — but not too public: Whoever told Arnold Schwarzenegger that appearing on every interview show ever to talk about his affairs and his out-of-wedlock child while simultaneously hawking his new book was very wrong.
2. Be humble. Seriously: Jonah Lehrer didn’t get the message that being a public intellectual does not allow you to avoid taking the blame for your own failings by over-intellectualizing the whole thing and pontificating about the why and the how. “I need rules because I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant”? Come on, man.
3. Admit to everything (and yes, we mean everything): During Lance Armstrong‘s awful Oprah interview, viewers could watch his brain working as he tried to figure out how to reveal as little as possible in order to minimize the damage. We’re not saying you have to admit that you once stole a cookie from the cafeteria in middle school, but the facts will, for the most part, come out. A half-assed confession may be worse than no confession at all.
4. Don’t expect everyone to forgive you or to give you your old job back: Former Representative Anthony Weiner truly seemed to think that, as long as he admitted to texting pseudo-sexual pictures of himself to random women, all his colleagues would welcome him back to his position and his constituents would re-elect him. It didn’t work, of course: those colleagues had to force him to resign, and the whole thing just made him seem even more out-of-touch. You want the damage to be minimal, but you have to prepare for what’s coming.
5. Focus on the people affected: The thing that really irked us about Tiger Woods’s 2010 “Me and my dad” apology ad was that it was both pretentious and completely internalized: it was an imaginary conversation between a man and his father, not his sponsors or his fans or his media supporters. This attempt to take the high road minimized the gains that Tiger made at his first press conference, in which he at least admitted that he had disappointed the public and that his problem stemmed from a sense of “entitlement.”
6. Keep it serious: The fact that Lance Armstrong took the opportunity to make a joke — a fat joke, no less — during an interview watched by millions of people says many things about him (none of them good). We don’t care how many people you did or did not call a “crazy bitch”, because this is a serious matter.
7. Don’t make any follow-up “I’m OK now” commercials: The message of Nike‘s new Tiger Woods spot is basically “it doesn’t matter what he did or when he did it, because he’s #1 again and that’s all you should care about”. News flash: the fact that some athletes have less-than-stellar personal ethics is about as interesting as the fact that water is wet. We get the point, but the way it was delivered was both arrogant and condescending.
We have no doubt that these points are common knowledge to all you seasoned PR experts out there, but we’d still love some thoughts/suggestions/constructive criticism. Thanks!
(Photo courtesy of Associated Press/Reed Saxon)