Opinion: If you mess up, fess up

3  minute read

This is an opinion on an effective public apology. The author does not endorse or support the behaviour and actions relating to sexual misconduct used in these examples.

At the beginning of December, Time magazine issued a long-running list of 95 men pushing unwanted sexual advances on their female coworkers with a promise to “continue to update the list” as cases come forward.

One of the list toppers, with over 80 accusations for his sexual advances and the impetus for the popular #metoo social media campaign is the once-prominent film producer, Harvey Weinstein.

A quick read of his Wikipedia page will tell you that he’s an executive that co-founded Miramax with his brother. The film accolades run on.

But the accolades have become an after thought.

Now, Weinstein is more commonly paired with words like scandal or sexual harassment and his successful career a mere footnote to stories told about sexual impropriety in the workplace. In fact, a new Wikipedia page exists titled “Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations”.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Weinstein made a colossal mistake. He didn’t come clean. It’s that simple. This could have been the result of legal guidance — but it cost him in the court of public opinion.

For communications professionals, transparency and accountability are not options; they are absolutes. Admitting the truth and taking ownership for wrongdoing will address the issue directly and defuse the situation.

We can recount many examples of crises that companies, spokespeople or celebrities like Weinstein have denied, pointed fingers or made excuses for behaviour — thereby prolonging the story while additional accusations pile up.

The trick is to beat it to the punch.

Comedian Louis C.K. took a different approach.

Louis C.K. issued a written statement admitting that the allegations levied against him for sexual misconduct were true and quickly diffused the situation.

His actions were wrong but his response was straight out of a crisis communications textbook. He didn’t leverage tactics that minimized the misconduct. Doing so would have further compromised his integrity.

It could be argued that Weinstein and Louis C.K. are not equal in comparison. The magnitude of their misconduct is different and their public profile is not the same but they are both linked to one of the biggest stories of 2017 for similar behaviour — just managed differently.

Louis C.K. understood a few key elements that reduced the negative public play. 

The public cares and so should you

It’s never a good decision to try and downplay something the public is in an uproar about, especially if the issue is getting massive media coverage. Coming off of the heels of Weinstein’s debacle, Louis C.K. issued a formal statement to the New York Times — the newspaper with the largest print and digital circulation in the United States. Not to mention the other media outlets that ran the same story.

The statement was public and remorseful.

Fess up

One of the facts of being human is that we all make mistakes. Unfortunately, our first inclination is also to hide what we’ve done.

Be proactive in your communications, be contrite and admit fault. Above all else, be sincere. Admitting you are wrong is never easy, but it’s a leadership position that will help you recover faster.

Louis C.K. did just that. In fact, he took it a step further and went into the ghastly details. He left zero room for interpretation.

Ask for forgiveness

A major opportunity has been lost unless you wrap up the apology with an ask for forgiveness but timing is important. Leaving out this critical component will shortchange the sincerity of your apology and the individuals that have been impacted.

Louis C.K. didn’t directly ask for forgiveness and in this case and it could have been too soon to do so. Instead he leveraged empathy in his statement, acknowledged the misuse of his power and admitted his wrongdoing.

Chelsie KlassenComment