In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been publicly saying “I’m sorry” for the dumb things they¹ve done: Christian Bale’s on-set tirade, Michael Phelp’s bong incident, Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged sale of a Senator’s seat (and his subsequent media tour proclaiming his innocence), etc. This is a trend we’ve seen for quite some time: Martha Stewart’s financial troubles, Russell Crowe’s phone-throwing incident, Governor Spitzer’s secret escapades...the list goes on and on.
But does saying “I’m sorry” really make it all better? Yes and no.
The American public can be very forgiving if your client immediately says he/she is sorry for whatever he/she has done. Can saying it repair the image he/she has now tarnished? Why is the public so forgiving?
Let’s take the latest screw-up: Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez. In 2007 during a “60 Minutes” interview, the reporter asked A-Rod outright if he took steroids. A-Rod flatly denied it. Fast forward to 2009 where a Sports Illustrated report surfaces that he allegedly used steroids from 2001-2003 while playing for the Texas Rangers. Now that he’s admitted his mistake on-camera to Peter Gammons of ESPN (the interview was immediately picked up by all the major TV news outlets, Crain’s NY, and The NY Times, among many others), how will it affect his status as a sports hero and role model? How much damage to his reputation has he created? Can he ever be trusted again now that he lied once? Should he, like others, be deemed honorable for coming forward?
Sometimes I think we put too much trust in our public figures. Trust is too often given and not earned. Therefore, we expect too much, and we’re surprised when they let us down. Then again, we’re also forgiving because we’re human and understand that humans are far from perfect. We’re conditioned to be empathetic and accept apologies from others who’ve done us wrong. When you’re a public figure (celebrity, politician, etc.), no one expects you to be perfect, but we also don’t expect you to be stupid. You’re a public figure because our society, the court of public opinion, made you one. And society can easily take your status away from you just as simply as it gave you your fame.
There are also times when I question whether or not a public person truly understands the gravity of his/her actions (or if he/she is just sorry he/she got caught). I imagine that public figures often feel more omnipotent and powerful than regular folks, again, because we gave them that power. I also imagine that these public figures feel that they can get away with certain things that regular folks couldn’t. Obviously, they’re incorrect. They’re no more above the law (or the law of stupidity) anymore than anyone else.
Then again, their mistake has gained them publicity, and so will their apology. But is ”I’m sorry” enough? What should we be telling our clients to do or say when they’ve done something wrong? I think it depends on the level of “crime”. The admission of a wrong-doing can be very powerful, if properly acknowledged. Saying you’re sorry can be effective if money or livelihood is not involved. Once money or the ability to earn a living has been affected, the “crime” becomes that much bigger and serious reparations need to be made (i.e.: money returned, replaced in office). If you’re crime is bigger than that let’s say it involves the death of another person your client’s best option may be to serve time in order to repair his/her reputation. “I’m sorry” just won’t do in a situation like that; it doesn’t let your client off the hook, either. Depending on this severity of the screw-up, maybe donating time and money to appropriate charities is the way to go. As a PR person, it¹s your duty (along with a lawyer) to advise your client of his/her best options to manage his/her reputation in a crisis.
I assume that no one is advising Bernie Madoff, at least not properly, anyway. Madoff has yet to say he was sorry for being a greedy, stupid human being. Even if he does say he’s sorry, the damage he’s done far outweighs any apology he could ever provide. Millions of dollars have been lost and thousands of peoples’ and companies’ lives have been altered forever by his greediness. And there’s no jail time in the world that can bring that money back.
While I believe that “I’m sorry” has become overused in the past few years, as PR people, we¹re trained to tell our client to admit his/her guilt and take responsibility as soon as possible. Why? Because the public will forgive and forget until the client does something stupid again (which we all know he/she will). And truth and justice will be restored to humankind. Yeah, right.
I often hear journalists and PR people say to these desecrated public figures, “Take the high road. Be honest, and admit your guilt.” Here’s my take on the high road follow society’s accepted ethical and moral guidelines; then, take a minute to think about your actions before (re)acting so you don¹t screw-up in the first place, and you won’t have to clean up a major mess later. (As for my clients, I advise them upfront that I don’t have enough money to bail them out, so they stay out of trouble to begin with!)
What do you recommend?
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Jocelyn Brandeis is an accomplished and award-winning communications professional with more than 15 years experience in the entertainment, consumer, new media, B2B, Hispanic, and nonprofit industries. She is responsible for securing interviews and media placement and creating full PR campaigns. Since co-founding JBLH Communications, the client roster has included: National Lampoon Comedy House, Doggy Tug, Mandinez.com, Play Clay Factory, The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, and The Child Center of NY.