The entire country watched in horror this month as Paula Deen’s deep-fried, butter-soaked career came crashing down in a mess of outrageous statements and one of the most painful non-apologies we’ve ever had the misfortune to witness.
Mrs. Deen’s fall was so epic, in fact, that it distracted us from another perfectly served case study in poor media relations. This one came courtesy of clay court champ Serena Williams, who ruined what should have been a complimentary Rolling Stone profile with a few ill-advised comments and a passive-aggressive “apology.”
While visiting a nail salon with reporter Stephen Rodrick, Williams saw a news report about the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that sent two high school football stars to jail and led to a PR fail for CNN when anchors Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley appeared to express more sympathy for the rapists than their victim.
Serena said of the perpetrators: “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know.” Beyond classifying the rape of a 16-year-old girl as “something stupid” and wondering whether the offenders were punished too harshly, Williams also had some less-than-flattering words for the victim:
“I’m not blaming the girl, but…why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? She’s lucky… she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”
Did she really need to throw a “but” in there?
We can debate the morals of underage drinking later—the girl was effectively abducted while in a semi-comatose state by a group of jocks who drove her from one location to another and assaulted her multiple times while discussing their actions on social media and distributing photographs and videos of the incident.
As soon as the interview went live, the Internet weighed in—and while a disturbing number of people defended Williams’s comments, most were appalled. Her subsequent statement on the matter didn’t help her case:
“I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”
The word “supposedly” rendered this already lame apology meaningless by strongly implying that the reporter intentionally misquoted Williams to make her look bad. His response? “The interview is on tape.”
That’s not all. Williams further displayed her lack of media savvy by making a very thinly veiled reference to rival Maria Sharapova, telling her sister Venus in a phone conversation during the same extended interview that “…hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.” (Sharapova is currently dating Williams ex Grigor Dimitrov.)
Here’s the key point: Unlike Deen, Williams realized that her first round non-apology wasn’t going to cut it. At a pre-Wimbledon press conference, she admitted to commenting on the case “without having all the information” and spoke of calling both Sharapova and the family of the Steubenville victim to offer her personal apologies. She also updated her blog with a more robust statement apologizing for her “insensitive and misinformed comments” on behalf of sexual assault victims everywhere.
Looks like the work of a skilled damage control specialist, no? It was almost a perfect save, but Williams still couldn’t quite hide her disdain for Rodrick:
“I’m used to dealing with these people not writing or commenting on a private conversation that I may have or kind of listening in or eavesdropping and then reporting on it.”
We would point out that any comments made in the presence of a reporter are fair game, but that’s PR 101. At the very least, we can say that Williams took to heart a lesson Paula Deen has yet to learn: in a crisis of your own making, you never double down and attack your critics by calling them hypocritical sinners who shouldn’t throw stones. Insincere apologies are like backhanded compliments: it might be better to say nothing at all.
*Photo courtesy of Reuters/Sergio Moraes