At first the Jonah Lehrer plagiarism story may feel a little too “inside the media” for its own good–but it’s a very relevant case study for anyone involved in PR and reputation management.
In short, Lehrer was a promising essayist/journalist/public speaker whose career crumbled after a few investigative writers discovered that he had not only copied and re-printed sections of his own work (which were published by different companies, thereby violating copyright laws) but also copied from other blogs and completely invented elements like quotes from Bob Dylan.
Now for the lesson in crisis comm: Lehrer’s first response to the controversy was denial. He eventually admitted to plagiarizing himself and inventing the Dylan quotes and lost his various media gigs, effectively killing his credibility. Today brings news of the first step in his rehabilitation campaign: he was hired to speak on his own misdeeds at a Knight Foundation journalism conference in Miami.
The journalists on Twitter aren’t having any of it, though.
Lehrer talks about need for rules and making them public. Well, the FIRST rule in journalism is this: don’t make shit up. #infoneeds
— Rob Blackwell (@ABWashBureau) February 12, 2013
Lehrer blamed his own intelligence and arrogance for his mistakes, calling these flaws “a basic part of me” and stating that the lessons learned from his failure will not last unless he talks about them openly so that he “might one day find a way to fail better.” (His speaking fee for the event was reportedly $20,000, a total that has inspired quite a bit of schadenfreude on Twitter.)
He clearly wanted this speech to mark a “starting over”, saying that he wants to return to writing but adding a qualifier: “I need rules because I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant. I need my rules to force me to confront my mistakes, to force me to deal with them every day”. It was a strange instance of accepting blame while denying personal responsibility. As Lehrer spoke, a series of related tweets (nearly all of them negative) scrolled down a screen directly behind him.
We will make the most obvious point here: Everyone who read Lehrer’s work assumed that he was telling the truth, just like everyone who supported LIVESTRONG believed that Lance Armstrong wasn’t a cheater and every Notre Dame fan thought Manti Te’o was a victim of cruel fate.
It’s the same lesson, really: when you’re caught in a ditch of your own making, you MUST ignore the very human desire to keep digging. You’ll never reach China and you’ll never save your own reputation.
PR pros know: responding to a crisis by maintaining a lie is a terrible strategy. It will only lead people to distrust you more in the future. Admitting your own dishonesty is painful and difficult–but if you’re a public figure or business that wants to maintain a respectable reputation, then it’s the only way to go.