The recently demised college professor and paperback writer Erich Segal famously wrote“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But people in public life today know that’s not true. You’d better plan to say you’re sorry – several times – then check the polls to see if anyone bought it, and get ready to hit the road with an Apology Tour if they didn’t. Tanking economy or not, it would seem public relations people should have more than enough work to keep them busy just putting out apologies for actors, senators and the president of Toyota.
Nobody’s perfect, the old expression goes, and, if you doubt it, watch a few minutes of your local evening news, any cable news program, or read a couple of pages of People magazine. Screw-ups abound. From politicians to pop stars to CEOs to sports icons, everybody, it seems, is up to something. Sex, steroids, abuse of power, lying under oath, sex, improper behavior in office, voting fraud, conduct unbecoming a cashier, sex – it seems that acceptable community standards only apply to a few timid souls who don’t think they can get away with screwing up or around.
The latest example of the cue-card-driven-apology-as-a-PR-strategy is the sports hero who has been out of sight for the past six weeks, but not out of the news. Last week he was apologizing (again) for having sex with women to whom he was not married. Such matters once were considered nobody’s business. But instead of just saying that when asked about it, he lied.
A professional athlete made a conscious decision to answer a question about his sex life untruthfully. Now, at his press conference, the athlete said this time he is telling the truth. This is because the matter is hurting his family and his career… and because 19 women have contacted various media organizations to claim they have had sexual relationships with the athlete. Having sex with someone is something most women usually didn’t want to talk about, especially with Larry King, because it’s nobody’s business. (It should also be noted here that 19 women are approximately 11,980 fewer women than actor Warren Beatty is alleged to have had sexual relationships with, and no one seems to be bothering him.)
Anyway, the athlete said at his press conference that he was being honest, although there were no actual press at the press conference – only the athlete’s mother and a group of his friends. And while it may seem unusual to speak to your mother and friends from a lectern, reading your most heartfelt sentiments from a prepared statement as television cameras broadcast the event live, not all families observe the same customs. In my own family, for example, several of us follow a longstanding tradition of not talking to one another at all, if possible… but enough about me.
The athlete did not permit his mother and friends to ask any questions at the press conference. It could have been awkward. Mom might have told him he looked thin and asked if he was eating. One of the friends might have asked, since he’s not driving the Cadillac Escalade, could he borrow it for the weekend. Another maybe wanted to use his golf clubs. Certainly there’d be a wiseass cousin who would ask him what’s Joslyn James like? It would be all downhill from there.
The athlete thought to include in his apology a totally unrelated left-field assurance that he had not taken “performance enhancing” drugs. Huh? Where did that come from? Did he mean Viagra or is it now just a requirement that there be a line included in every athlete’s public apology, like “your mileage may vary” in car commercials or the surgeon general’s warning on cigarettes?
So, now the question is can the world’s greatest golfer possibly be less convincing in his televised apology to his wife than Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, David Vitter, Jim McGreevey, Jimmy Swaggart, and former President Clinton were in their televised apologies to their wives?
David Letterman delivered his apology, winked, and got a laugh, some applause, and a boost in the ratings.
Rudy Giuliani, Marion Berry, Mel Gibson, Prince Charles and Newt Gingrich never bothered to apologize to their wives or the public, preferring instead to take the position favored by many young people, addressing their indiscretions with a shrug and a look that said…whatever.
Hugh Grant, Woody Allen, and Paul Reubens were not married at the time they apologized publicly for being on the wrong side of the once-popular morality clauses that were standard in studio contracts. Reviews there remain mixed.
And former Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig… Well, never mind.
A pretty standard rule of crisis management is, if you scew-up, apologize and ask for a chance to win back the public’s confidence. That was and still is appropriate. But a problem today is that the public has seen and heard the “obligatory tearful apology” on TV so many times it’s like listening to the still another lounge act perform Feelings (whoa whoa whoa…). The yawning starts and people begin looking at their watches.
It’s sad, really, and a challenge for the PR teams and crisis management experts to counsel their clients to say and do the right things, yet not have it appear to be an insincere rerun of the previous televised apology.
The world’s greatest golfer delivered his televised apology in less than 15 minutes. The critics, pundits and wannabees will be holding up their score cards and judging his presentation for a long time to come, but the early reviews don’t look good. (It should be noted that one Richard Nixon, after an early screw-up in his career, delivered his famous “Checkers speech” on TV in 1952 and we’re still talking about it – and that was when most of the country didn’t even have televions yet.)
So, golf guy, if you’re reading this – and why wouldn’t you be? – you can call me and we’ll work through this. Or get a copy of my book Crisis Marketing: When Bad Things Happen to Good Companies. Buy it retail – you can afford it. Seriously, PR is not just putting out press releases and publicizing teenage vampires or writing public apologies from a template. It’s about finding solutions to problems and communicating those solutions effectively. And when PR is not about recycling old ideas because they seemed to work the last time, it can still be helpful. And that’s the truth.