We’ve seen it time and time again: a public figure caught in a scandal of their own making. America gets out the scorecards and grades their response – our new national hobby. How quickly did they address the situation? Was it personal or through a spokesperson? Did they make a full apology, or did it feel lame, like, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I thought was harmless fun.” Was it issued on just one platform or across several? How and when an organization or individual in crisis responds can make all the difference.
So, what are the best practices for navigating tough public scrutiny?
First and foremost: Depending on how egregious the action is, a good apology and rehabilitation period can save reputations and careers. If it’s a heinous crime — well, there are limits to how much the public will forgive and rightly so.
Not everyone gets this first part right. And even if they do, they must eat their fair share of humble pie over and over again: opponents will constantly bring up transgressions, reporters may dig up more dirt and, perhaps worst of all, one could become an internet meme.
Nothing is better than learning from other’s mistakes, so let’s look at a couple famous apologies to guide us:
Bill Clinton, 1998
Perhaps the most famous apology in American history came from President Bill Clinton following his extra-marital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. His initial denial of the affair not only landed him on Congressional trial for impeachment but sowed deep distrust in the American people.
After months of political and comedic ridicule, Congressional scrutiny and a Grand Jury investigation, Clinton conceded and made several public apologies.
From the podium in the Rose Garden, Clinton said, “What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds.”
Yet nothing could quite undo the denials, and while Clinton was able to ride out his tenure as Commander in Chief and was not destroyed by the scandal, his reputation was forever bruised and proved to have lasting effects on his wife’s brand and career ambitions as well.
LESSON: If you deny, deny, deny — even the best speech writers can’t fix it.
Tiger Woods, 2010
In the early 2000s, Tiger Woods was at the height of his career: a celebrated golf prodigy, squeaky-clean Nike ambassador and inspiring role model for millions of young sports fans who wanted to challenge the status quo. But following the exposure of his rampant infidelity, erratic behavior and arrest, Wood faced a dramatic fall from grace.
Nearly three months after the first reports surfaced, Woods broke his silence with a scheduled press conference. In a long 13-minute statement shot in front of an oddly monochrome blue-draped backdrop, Woods apologized to his wife and fans and announced a temporary sabbatical from golf.
While Woods initially lost his lucrative sponsorships, critics generally agreed that the apology was sufficient, and fans begged to see him return to the links.
But in a new era of communication, Woods also fell victim to a new form of infamy: the meme. Wood’s mugshot went viral and is still commonly circulated with funny captions on the internet today.
More than a decade later, Woods’ rehabilitation and impressive golf skills have helped him return to the spotlight in general good favor.
LESSON: With the proper omission of guilt and adequate time for the public to process and move on, a second chance is possible.
In summary, we all love a good come-back, and the public is generally open to forgiving and moving on. (Few celebs could have overcome the jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch moment the way Tom Cruise did, but we all love Mission Impossible, right?) But they expect what we have all come to accept as The Rules of the Apology to be observed, and until they are, redemption can remain just out of reach.